With Hollywood largely abandoning that most distinctly America film genre, The Western, it’s encouraging that independent filmmakers and start-up studios are at least trying to revive it.
But getting one to come off — the looks, sounds and feel of rawhide, dust and tumbleweeds — is proving damned difficult.
I stumbled across “Painted Woman” as my father was feeding his Showtime/Westerns cable addiction, a rare title that isn’t a big screen classic, B-movie “oater” and isn’t “Lonesome Dove” — the staples of such channels.
It’s based on a Dusty Richards novel, one of his “Brandiron” novel series — he’s rightly described as “prolific” within this paperback genre — it features, horses, guns, a stagecoach and Oklahoma settings. That the title of that book is “The Mustanger and the Lady” tells you adapter/director James Cotten (“Sugar Creek,” “La Linea”) changed the focus, somewhat.
It’s about a brutalized “kept woman,” a hooker kicked up and down the line (Australian redhead Stef Dawson) whose deliverance from the rich brute who keeps her (Robert Craighead) may depend on a hired gun (Matt Dallas) or a horse catcher/trainer (David Thomas Jenkins).
Her jealous “owner” has reason to be suspicious of Frank Dean (Dallas). Her “I belong to you” is no reassurance. The old man beats her at will and she takes it as if it’s a life she’s grown used to, if not accepted.
Dean may give her hope with “A gentleman never strikes a lady,” but will he go against his nature, his contract, the hired gunman’s code, what have you, to save her?
And then there’s the “mustanger” she runs up on when she makes a break for it.
A famous classical music critic once remarked that he could tell if a performer or orchestra was bad within a minute or so. Movies are the same way. “Painted Woman” is death itself, earnest and appropriately costumed, but static, flatly lit and photographed, almost instantly awful.
It’s a film with no forward motion at all through the early scenes, underlit, dully acted, ineptly directed and edited. When Old Man Allison (Craighaid) yells at Julie to “Get over here,” the film cuts to her, sees her stand, then start her slow walk and follows her across the room.
Nothing registers — not fear, not dread, not urgency. Cut to her in motion and the scene is animated. Instead, it just lies there like an uninteresting portrait intended for a barroom wall — unfinished, with us watching the paint dry. “Painted Woman” is an endless succession of such scenes with no motion, nothing to drive them or lure us in.
Roles like this are rare for actresses, and a movie like “Painted Woman” might have attracted one — an ambitious second-banana on TV looking for work on a hiatus, a young-ish “name” who hasn’t worked for a while. If the script’s good, they’ll come, no matter how thin the up-front pay.
The script isn’t good. The fact that Cotten couldn’t lure somebody with a little box office ID and charisma to play the part should have told him, “This script needs more work.”
He’s made a Western that will confuse and bore Western fans, and a character drama that won’t reach anybody else because the characters are dull and the no-name performances barely competent, utterly lacking in charisma.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, adult themes
Cast: Stef Dawson, Matt Dallas, David Thomas Jenkins, Kiowa Gordon Robert Craighead
Credits:Directed by James Cotten, script by James Cotten and Amber Lindley, based on a Dusty Richards novel. An SP release.
Running time: 1:48