Is it possible to sustain a feature in a single interior location with the premise that three outlaws on the run may or may not rape the three women of the house, two of whom are already being molested by their father? I mean, you could. But why the hell would you want to? In JT Mollner’s gritty, plodding Spaghetti Western–inflected Outlaws and Angels, the moral lessons are as transparent as a glass pane — sometimes the bad guys are good guys and vice versa — and the dialogue drones on so much it may compel even Quentin Tarantino himself to say, “Less is more, man.”
The action starts out promisingly enough. Two young women stroll arm in arm down the dusty main street of a pioneer town, kicking up heels without a thought to step over a prostrate drunk who’s been on the ground long enough to develop a blistery sunburn on his exposed ass. The women josh each other, name-calling “whore” and “slut” with affection, until a sudden blast takes out one girl’s eye, punctuating the dulled, sun-bleached scene with a bright brick-red spray of blood. The bank robbers who fired the shot — and another who killed a government agent — make their getaway, and a lawman tracker named Josiah (Luke Wilson) is called in to bring them to justice.
Classic premise, right? It’s squandered with an incredible lack of action and B- and C-storylines. The robbers, led by the pretty boy Henry (Chad Michael Murray), lose a few gang members, kill a few of their own relatives for some reason, then hole up in the house of a preacher (Ben Browder) for the night, where most of the talk centers around Henry dictating who may or may not have sex with the wife (Teri Polo) or the two teenage daughters, Charlotte (Madisen Beaty) and Florence (Francesca Eastwood).
Even before the home invasion, Florence has already had a few skirmishes with her sister, who sticks her fingers down the girl’s throat until she vomits, and her father keeps demanding his gross “rubdowns.” So right off the bat, Florence is the outspoken hostage, pushing buttons on both sides of the gun barrel. But when the only big reveal we have here is that Daddy is an incestuous hypocrite, it’s confusing why the filmmakers indulge in so much slow-paced dialogue — just say it and let someone do something, anything! It’s like Mollner just wanted a reason to make Chad Michael Murray grumble “slobbin’ on knobs” a few times. So there’s that. But there’s also an entire scene between bandit Little Joe (Keith Loneker) and Charlotte based on the premise that “I should be raping you right now, but Henry told me not to.”
Henry turns Florence against her family — she doesn’t need much convincing — and grindhouse-worthy blood gushes forth, but the big thing this film doesn’t have in common with some of the great pulp classics is that it’s ultimately boring. A roving, zooming camera is used with very little thought to what it’s zooming in on and how it might make use of that technique to further the story, other than letting it linger on random faces. Cuts to Josiah tracking the robbers don’t complicate or enrich the story, and nobody seems to feel any urgency.
One spot where Outlaws and Angels succeeds is in its well-researched period language (I’m using “curly wolf” in my daily speech from now on) and costuming, though Eastwood’s distractingly manicured eyebrows are anachronistic. But, meh, Claudia Cardinale got to wear her fake eyelashes, so this is forgivable. Despite worthy performances from the entire cast, this movie’s a prime example of a director admiring some great movies but only having a cursory, superficial understanding of what it was that made them work. Oh, and one more thing: Can we collectively outlaw farting corpses in film?