The Difficulty of Artsy Dialogue and Real Life Antagonists: A Review of the Deadwood movie

I first developed a strong interest in historical fiction during college and made a point to watch every historical series I could find. Some never clicked with me—never got into Frontier or The Tudors—but I enjoyed Deadwood a lot. And while some shows take quite awhile to get good—looking at you, Serenity—I enjoyed Deadwood from the very first episode. Years have passed since I first watched the episode but I can still remember the shootout that ended the episode. Having enjoyed the first episode immensely, I went on to watch every episode in the series. I developed a deep interest in characters like Al Swearengen—by no means a sympathetic character when we first meet him—so I was excited to hear HBO would be releasing a Deadwood movie. I figured the movie would be a way to add some closure to the series–the show got canned in its third season, despite being envisioned as a five season series–and would be a fun way to check in with the characters. Having had many weeks to mull the movie over, I have to admit that I did not enjoy it.

From a stage production standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with the movie. The costumes are great and the performances are stellar. The writing, however, left a bit to be desired. Just to be clear, I don’t think David Milch is a bad writer. If that were the case, I never would have finished the Deadwood show. However, I do think the Deadwood movie had some dialogue issues and some plotting issues.

The dialogue was never the main reason I liked the show, but it never something that bothered me either. Truth be told, I enjoyed many of the era-specific turns of phrase and I suspect the same holds true for many other viewers. Maybe those same viewers liked that so much of the dialogue in the Deadwood movie was written in iambic pentameter, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. To me, it felt forced and artificial which, ultimately, made it difficult for me to invest in the dialogue. In any case, it wasn’t just the dialogue which rubbed me wrong and I also took issue with the plotting.

For the most part, the plot of the Deadwood movie revolves around George Hearst’s return to the town of Deadwood. George Hearst is a real-life historical figure and, like the show suggests, was very involved in the mining business. However, Hearst did not die while in South Dakota, nor did he ever come to any serious harm while there, which meant Milch had one of two options: he could either completely ignore the historical record or he could make sure Hearst survived his trip to Deadwood. Ultimately, Milch decided on the latter. Why he did so is not a question I can not answer but I think it created some narrative problems for the movie since Milch also chose to insert him into some very trying situations.

The best example of this may be when Bullock, the sheriff of Deadwood, discovers that Hearst ordered the killing of his friend. Putting aside the contrived nature of the killing, it really felt like Milch just wanted to make sure that Bullock and Hearst butt heads during the movie, Bullock’s reaction doesn’t make that much sense. Rather than putting the hired gun in a cell, or getting his confession in writing, Bullock hauls the hired gun before Hearst and his well-armed goons. He then tortures the hired gun, in front of Hearst and all his men, to make him confess the details of his perfidy. Sure that a confession would implicate their benefactor, a Hearst loyalist shoots the man before he can admit to anything incriminating and Bullock loses his best witness. The sequence is frustrating, and more than a little predictable, but it had to be included because Milch was determined to give Hearst a way out. This “need” to make sure Hearst never comes to any serious harm means many of the characters have to make decisions that don’t make sense and I think it ultimately hurt the plot.

I’m sure there are many viewers who disagree with my take. After all, critics from Boston Globe and CNN gave the movie stellar reviews and the audience score, according to Rotten Tomatoes, stands at 97%. It is entirely possible I am being too harsh and might enjoy the movie better once I have had more time to mull it over. As of right now, I am in no rush to rewatch the movie and have to admit that I am disappointed the Deadwood series will end on such a weak note.

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