This sadistic pulp-revisionist Western starts so well that you might feel something like loss as it ends: The Duel could have been something. The opening is all evocative mud and blood as a pair of knife-fighters, their left arms tied together, stab in a downpour. Cut to two decades later, just after the Civil War, and the Texas Ranger son (Liam Hemsworth) of the slain man is dispatched to investigate that duel’s winner: Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), a Colonel Kurtz/Judge Holden-type reported to be killing Mexicans without cause. The opening scenes boast a grim vitality and a welcome interest in our ugliest history. A governor’s tall tale links Brant’s history of scalping of nonwhites — “red, Mexican, negra, it didn’t matter” — to a Christly divinity.
In the isolated town he rules, Brant parades in white tails, pants, vest and hat atop a white horse; he delivers snake-handling sermons in the clapboard church and has a cold, hairless, reptilian mien suggesting Florida Governor Rick Scott. Harrelson doesn’t fully puff himself up into the role of the bad-news folk hero, but he seems to relish Matt Cook’s King James–inflected dialogue, and he and director Kieran Darcy-Smith stir a chill when Brant’s shadow falls upon Marisol (Alice Braga), the Ranger’s wife.
Too bad that Brant proves such a simp, though. He knows that Hemsworth’s undercover Ranger has come for him, but for reasons that never make sense Brant hires him on as sheriff and furnishes him the arsenal and free time to unknot the mystery in this heart of darkness. The Ranger, meanwhile, proves himself the usual movie-hero badass who can drop every bad guy in the room — but then, when witnessing the slaughter of innocents by Brant and some naïfs, chooses to sit back and observe. We’re stuck there with him, watching a fleeing woman get shot again and again.
Neither hero nor villain is much for coherent moment-to-moment decision making. (Why, in the Most Dangerous Game–inspired finale, does Brant take with him newbies who can’t shoot straight?) Maybe they’re confused over what kind of movie they’re in. These men seem caught between the film’s dueling modes — in some scenes, it’s a dead-serious consideration of the uses and practicalities of gun violence, but in others it’s a cornily over-the-top cowpoke thriller, the kind where wicked whites gun down minorities and the blood bursts like fireworks. Sometimes, for a shock, killing is a quick jolting laugh, but when it matters it’s going to take all day. Also confounding: the way we’re cued to cheer sadism just after being cued to jeer it.
Hemsworth, bristling with beard, holds his scenes together with silent power, and he looks great on a horse or brooding with his eyes barely visible beneath the brim of a hat. Braga, as the wife you might at first be glad gets to go on the dangerous mission, is squandered in a role of exceptional thanklessness: bedridden property fought over by the male leads.