| The Quick and the Dead


Reviews Women of the West

The Quick and the Dead

The Quick and the Dead

Sam Raimi

USA / Japan, 1995


Review by Adam Balz

Posted on 19 August 2009

Source Sony DVD

Categories Women of the West

Redemption is hell. A sparsely populated desert town accessible through a crumbling graveyard, Redemption has suffered for years under the authoritarian rule of a gunslinger named John Herod. A small pocket of life with little similarity to its name, there is no visible reason for anyone to visit such a god-awful place. And yet, as the film opens, we see the figure of a woman on horseback riding towards Redemption. Along with more than a dozen others, she has come to participate in a yearly contest that will ultimately determine the future of the dying town. True, John Herod doesn’t offer Redemption to those who take up his yearly offer, only cash and glory. But we recognize almost immediately that Herod’s despotic authority over the scant citizenry of Redemption stems from his continuous victory as a gunfighter. Should he be bested, we understand, his influence would be lost; however, should he win, as he’s done every year since the contest began, Redemption will remain strictly under his control, at least until every last bit of life is choked away.

Herod, however, has taken great steps to assure that he will never be defeated. He sits atop a mountain of wealth, much of which he has culled through throttling taxes, which leaves Redemption and its people dependent on him. He does not move without his bodyguards, all of whom are dressed in black trenchcoats and carry rifles. He has also dug a vast chasm between himself and everyone around him, isolating himself not only physically — his bleak and monstrous house stands at the end of Redemption’s lone street — but also emotionally; near the end of the film, the cold passivity he displays at the death of his son, who he promptly disowns, is an unsettling intimation of his psyche. Still, it’s a psyche that has kept him fearlessly in control.

All of which, in Herod’s eyes, makes the character portrayed by Sharon Stone all the more interesting. Known only as “the Lady,” she arrives in Redemption to a smattering of attention, going almost unnoticed until she joins the contest and saves the life of Cort, a gunfighter-turned-preacher. Almost immediately, Herod recognizes that the Lady hasn’t come to Redemption for the cash prize, nor the glory that is affixed to it; no, he knows that she wants something else, though every opportunity he takes to approach her about the subject, either at the local bar or over dinner in his mansion, leaves his curiosity further unquenched. And while her moniker seems patently offensive, reducing her identity to little more than a pretentious note about her gender, it’s also doubly appropriate, simultaneously exaggerating the misogyny of the American Western and highlighting the eventual kinship between herself and Cort, who actually becomes the only character to refer to her by name when, facing off against one another, he calls her Ellen, not “the Lady.”

In fact, what makes Sharon Stone’s character so remarkable is how absolutely unremarkable she is, at least when compared to the men around her. Not only does Redemption house a rich collection of men who are equally homespun and disgusting, but the contest attracts a dozen or so eccentric gunfighters, including a glamorous showman named Ace, a gun-for-hire named Sergeant Clay Cantrell, and Spotted Horse, a Native American who takes pride in showing off the old bullet wounds that pepper his body. Ellen’s guarded, almost Eastwood-esque history actually elevates her above the other gunfighters, and she becomes a reliable source of everything we expect in a hero, rendering her gender near irrelevant.

Though Ellen’s backstory is revealed methodically through flashbacks, we know instantly why she has come to Redemption. The truth is standard fare: revenge, which she moves towards nervously, only to back away and even once flee town. The Lady’s name is Ellen, and she was a young girl living in Redemption when her father, a marshal, died at the hands of Herod and his gang, who controlled the town from that day forward. Ellen left thereafter and, we imagine, spent the next few decades training for her return in much the same way heroes and heroines from samurai films disappear into themselves (often under the tutelage of a wise old man). Of course, when she does finally make her way back to town, again through that ramshackle cemetery, not everything goes as planned, and she finds herself alternately waiting for her showdown with Herod and fighting off the other contest participants.

The Quick and the Dead marked yet another opportunity for writer-director Sam Raimi to exercise his commitment to exaggerated genre motifs and cinematographic devices. His use of zooms, close-ups, trombone shots, and deep focus becomes almost dizzying, though they’re incredibly fun for those of us who grew up nourished on the films of Peckinpah and Leone; and his more original techniques, including one in which Herod is framed by a bullet-hole in Cantrell’s head, become some of the film’s most memorable aspects. Nothing, though, could top the final duel, the much anticipated confrontation between not only Herod and Ellen but Ellen and her past, for which Raimi abandoned all pretenses and went full-on film geek, offering one of the most satisfactory conclusions to any American Western. We know who will win, we know who won’t, and Raimi knows enough to spare us the evangelizing about gender with which he could so easily have ended the film. Instead, he allows his hero to follow her male predecessors and ride off into the proverbial sunset.

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