BluRay/DVD Reviews

BROKEN TRAIL

By • Sep 5th, 2006 •

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(SONY Pictures Home Entertainment) 2006.
184 mins / AR 1.78:1
2 discs. ‘Making of’ doc.

Robert Duvall called this the third in his Western Trilogy, and he was one of the Executive Producers. The earlier installments in the Duvall-trio, very different films except for their sprawling narratives and morally upbeat protagonists, are LONESOME DOVE (’88) and OPEN RANGE (’04). LD (Artisan), one of the ten best films of the 80s, was adapted from the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry, directed by Aussie helmer Simon Wincer, and premiered on TV as a six hour mini-series. OR (Touchstone) was a theatrical film running a theatrically wieldy 139 mins, and was directed by Kevin Costner.

In all of them, whether as the poetic, life-loving, wily womanizer in LD, the elder free grazer in OR, or the hardened-yet-soft-hearted herdsman in BT, Duvall seemed born to the roles, far more so than to others among his memorable gallery of performances in films such as THE GODFATHER, APOCALYPSE NOW, and perhaps even his Academy Award-winning turn in TENDER MERCIES. They are slowly paced, feel lived in, and the cumulative impression he makes is indelible, even though Larry McMurtry told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted the roles reversed in LD, for Tommy Lee Jones to be playing the part Duvall walked away with. I can’t even imagine that being possible, but who was I to argue with Larry McMurtry.

BROKEN TRAIL is produced and directed by Walter Hill, a passionate filmmaker who has had his hills and valleys, and I’m pleased to say that this is a hill. There are some moments, some scenes or sequences, where his grip on the production failed him – such as a fire sequence, which goes by in a montage because (I have to surmise) the editor wasn’t able to make it work otherwise. But these apparent difficulties are few and far between. The greater part of BK’s rambling narrative is unique, insightful, and affecting.

In it, a handful of Chinese girls have been brought to the US of 1897 to be sold as whores, but through a series of misadventures they end up in the unlikely care of a horse wrangler (Duvall) and his disgruntled nephew (Church) who can’t really afford to be slowed down by the frightened girls, but morally realize they have no choice. Their burden unravels itself in many ways, including the young ladies becoming an unexpected delight and education to the hardened cowboys, and the long journey is taken on many levels. It helps to know that it is based on a true story.

When LD hit the TV screens, Duvall was about 18 years younger, and still able to pull off a roguish characterization. By now, he’s definitely grown into more the grandfather figure, one for whom love has long ceased to become an option. And so, when an abused prostitute (Scacchi) ends up in his care as well, one last temptation is dangled in front of him on this, his avowed last drive across country.

Hayden, who copped the Oscar, and an NBR award, for his performance in SIDEWAYS, is winningly dour here in the more latently scripted part, but he eeks all there is to eek out of it. We care for him, we hope that his strained relationship with Duvall will iron itself out, that he might just end up with one of the Chinese girls (Singapore-born Gwendoline Yeo), and that he proves himself worthy in the violent, dramatic third act.

The arch villain of the piece is Chris Mulkey who sets out to retrieve the girls on behalf of the local whorehouse madam who originally contracted for them. Mulkey has been around for decades, essaying many different roles. He’s absolutely terrifying here, and for the entire second half you dread the eventual confrontation between him and the two protagonists. James Russo, as another antagonist, is the only other actor (along with Duvall) to have appeared in both BK and OR.

On a time frame this large there are many characters given ample opportunity to develop, and Hill sees to it that they are full-bodied and real. There is more open sentiment here than in the other two films, but the characters are sympathetic and you want to feel for them, and in the end you forgive the sundry manipulations for what you’ve gained in catharses.

The period feel is spread all over the film by a fastidious art department, and the cinematography evokes the West of barely two centuries ago with nary a single telephone wire in frame. For its warmth and epic adventure, this is a keeper. In fact the entire trilogy should be on your DVD shelf.


Produced & Directed by Walter Hill.
Written by Alan Geoffrion.
Production Design by Ken Rempel.

With: Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church, Greta Scacchi, Caroline Chan, Olivia Cheng, Jadyn Wong, Valerie Tian, Gwendoline Yeo, Chris Mulkey, James Russo.

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