On paper the Western “Sweetwater” is just another revenge movie: the main character’s loved one is murdered and bloody retribution ensues. However, two things elevate the material. First, there is the unapologetic violence portrayed onscreen. Second, there are the actors who give it all their best, especially Ed Harris in a hilarious turn as the new sheriff in town.
A decision that would have surely pleased Quentin Tarantino is that the revenge-seeking character is a woman living in the old west. Sarah (January Jones) is a former prostitute trying to build an honest life with her husband Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) on the plains of New Mexico. Unfortunately they do not live in the best of towns, as they have to deal with a greedy banker, an incompetent sheriff, and a creepy shopkeeper. The worst of the lot is the man who runs the town, Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) the sort of man who hates sinners, but has no problem with committing sins like murder and rape.
Isaacs portrays Josiah as a 19th century version of cult leader Jim Jones only armed with a six-shooter. He has a huge property, money, devout followers, and definitely more than one wife. When Miguel comes to his compound to accuse him of letting his sheep graze on his farm, Josiah takes it as a personal insult and decides it his divine right to slit Miguel’s throat. The idea of taking Miguel’s farm and his wife definitely factored in the decision. When Sarah discovers what has happened she of course decides to pick up her own pistol and go after everyone responsible, sometimes in very creative and gruesome ways.
Complicating matters for both Sarah and Josiah is the arrival of Ed Harris’ Cornelius Jackson (what an awesome name) who is there to investigate Josiah in connection to other murders. With his long hair, rude manners, and a habit of talking to his horse, Cornelius seems like a man who has spent too much time under the hot sun. During a cringe-worthy dinner conversation he bluntly asks Josiah if he has ever fornicated with his sheep. Surprisingly, he is actually a very smart crime scene investigator. By digging out bullets from of the many corpses that begin to pile up in town, he is able to tell which ones were most likely fired by Josiah and which ones were used by a very polite woman wearing a blue dress. This is the sort of supporting character you wish had his own movie.
Co-directors Logan and Noah Miller also score some points for having a female character who goes from being victim to a person who takes matters into her own hands. After her husband dies Sarah manages to keep the farm functioning even if all the men still look down on her. When she decides to take the fight to the people who have wronged her it is clear she is no damsel in distress and at one point she even rescues a male character who has found himself in quite a precarious position.
As far as revenge westerns go “Sweetwater” is unfortunately overshadowed by “Django Unchained,” but it is very entertaining in its own right and shows that January Jones should have very little trouble finding work after the final season of “Mad Men.”
(“Sweetwater” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and on Netflix.)