DVD review: The Old West meets the dark underneath in The Burrowers

22 May

 

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The Burrowers begins as a straightforward western, and enhances its small scale drama with heaping doses of creepiness. The story is set in the Dakota territories during 1879, only three years after Custer fought and lost The Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana. Small homesteads sit between long, isolating prairies and forested mountains; the threat of the Sioux still looms large in the minds of settlers.

J.T. Petty’s odd little film opens on the small farm of the Stewarts, with a narration involving love-sick Irishman Coffey asking the elder Stewart for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Images of a gentle and languid beauty play out on the screen as he speaks, and his courtship with MaryAnne is captured in visuals that would not be out of place in a more ambitious film like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The reverie is broken by an attack on the Stewart house where unseen intruders kill the father and force the women and children into the basement. Coffey isn’t there when it happens. This sequence is abrupt and unnerving, and breaks from the idyll of farm life. The point has been made. Peace and calm can be shattered in an instant on the prairie and the film lets us know it won’t hold back in shattering our own calm.
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Coffey comes calling on Maryanne the following morning, and finds the Stewarts missing, with other neighbors dead in their homes. He runs into John Clay, a no nonsense rancher with a weathered hardness to him, who is also looking for the vanished settlers. The burly, square-jawed Clay is played by the always compelling (and imposing) Clancy Brown and when Clay recruits another rancher, Parcher, to form a search party, he turns out to be Brown’s fellow Lost alumn, Will Mapother.

At this point, I was excited; two strong character actors in prominent roles and both not traditional leads. Their rugged looks combined with the ominous vibe both give off works quite well for the characters. These men don’t come off as classic heroes, but as something more along the lines of anti-heroes. Even in the darkest portrayals by John Wayne, he was never anything less than the hero. Not so here. Parcher and Clay care about the people who are missing and they help Coffey when they can, but survival is higher on the menu than honor.

When Coffey, Clay and Parcher join up with a nearby army militia, they butt heads with that unit’s vile commander, Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison). Hutchison, a veteran himself at playing dark and sinister characters(he’s the third actor in the cast to have appeared on Lost) makes Victor the kind of man who never thinks too deeply about his actions. Henry has adopted the mindset and values of men like Custer completely. He hates the Sioux and all “indians”. It goes beyond seeing them as a threat. When they capture a Sioux warrior, Victor tortures him for amusement, not necessity. At this point, Petty draws the historical realities of the time in clear, bloody strokes. The immigrant Coffey and Calahan, Victor’s black cook, watch on in unease at the violence done towards the native americans—probably musing on their own “inadequate” status in this frontier world.
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The film starts to switch gears between western and horror when Coffey and his group break off from Victor, and set out to look for the Stewarts on their own. Along their path, they encounter Sioux who talk of a mysterious tribe known as the “burrowers” who do not kill, but capture and kidnap. The details the ranchers get are unclear to them, and have the appearance of riddles.

Petty starts seasoning the film with signs of the unusual. Wide, staring eyes look up from beneath the dry Dakota soil, ominous, gray writhing shapes shuffle through the night prairie, and strands of fair, blonde hair seem to be growing from the earth itself. One of the film’s most intense scenes comes when Clay and Parcher discover the body of a young girl buried shallowly in ground. There is a terrible scratching sound which seems to be coming from inside of her. As the bewildered men search for the source, they realize it’s in her boot. As tension coils like a rattler, the boot is removed to reveal a single twitching toe;she is still alive, but paralyzed.

Where the film goes from there I will leave for you to discover. I will tell you I was riveted for the first half, and while I enjoyed the revelation of the burrower tribe, it’s in the second half that the film loses some of it’s epic feel and grandeur. It’s a smaller story, to be sure, but by the time it wraps up, the film is focused on nothing but the monsters. There is a final coda that reminds us of the earlier themes, but that’s it.

Part of this problem is the burrowers themselves. We are given a slight back story that doesn’t explain them as much as it hints at an explanation. Their physiology and methods puzzle me, including the manner in which they can be destroyed. They don’t seem like beings intended to live on (or under) flat plains. Were they imported? From another country? Another dimension? Who knows.
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Petty is a talented director and he’s a canny writer in the early going. Indie films have a tough time appropriating the western genre. It’s usually a question of budget. Bright shiny sets on a dusty lot don’t evoke the same mystique of location shooting. Often, the photography is pedestrian, and holds too close on the actors in an attempt to cover shoddy production. A lack of research results in vague writing that fails to capture the details and reality of the time period. The Burrowers doesn’t have these problems and is amazingly strong in those aforementioned areas. It’s a full blown western, and it takes its time in developing a believable reality. It also blends a contemporary tone with one befitting a campfire ghost story circa 1870.

Joseph LoDuca’s score is haunting and melancholy. It underscores the shadowy threat of “the burrowers” and the brutal atrocity committed by the humans in the story. The breath-taking scenery and cinematography make the film come alive, and the washed out film stock adds menace to the arcane imagery.

Due to the strength of all the elements in the earlier portions of the film, I’m led to believe that budget constraints resulted in paring it down to a point where it resembled a short story more than a satisfying, three act adventure. This happens sometimes. Look at Mimic, and then look at how well Del Toro turned out.

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Petty, whose first film, Soft for Digging, was a ghost story set in Western Maryland, seems perfectly capable of handling a larger scale film. What he delivers here is a creepy, engrossing drama that embraces it’s setting and characters. The story it tells, it tells well.

I only wonder what could have been done if Petty had breathing room, and we could have seen all of the ways that his burrowers intersect with the native people who discovered them and the white encroachers on their land. It could have been an epic and affecting story; a giant of the genre. Me, I want to see what a real budget could do for those flashback scenes in which the burrowers are glimpsed taking down buffalo.

The Burrowers is available on DVD. You can catch a look at the trailer HERE.

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One Response to “DVD review: The Old West meets the dark underneath in The Burrowers”

  1. John December 13, 2009 at 2:07 am #

    What is the name of the girl who plays the paralyzed girl that was found buried alive?

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