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.

Review of Apocalypto film

I first saw Apocalypto in high school and enjoyed my first viewing immensely. I had little to go off when it came to assessing the accuracy of the movie but I found the actions sequences very entertaining and enjoyed the fast-paced, straightforward narrative. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about Mesoamerican history and I understand much better the problematic elements of the movie. The movie suggests the post-Classic Mayans carried out human sacrifice on a scale completely incongruous with the academic consensus and that people who lived in the hinterland had yet to transition to an agricultural lifestyle but did have to worry about getting raided by distant city-states. In reality, the Mayan people had been practicing agriculture for centuries by this point and warfare was carried out by major polities against other polities, not tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. For that matter, the idea that villagers would practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintain no connection to any sort of major metropolis contradicts a great deal of what we know about the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1500s. As someone who takes a great interest in history, especially history related to the European colonization of the Americas, these inaccuracies are troubling to say the least.

Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the quality of the movie, it is important to note that Apocalypto is a rather unique movie. After all, the box office is not exactly overwhelmed with movies set in pre-colonial North America, let alone movies filmed entirely in maya t’aan. I don’t think this should make audiences necessarily forgiving of the many inaccuracies included in the film but I think it does put them in context. At the end of the day, movie studios are profit-seeking organizations and the movie was intended for a general audience, not academics that specialize in Post-Classic Mayan history. To be fair, the many inaccuracies of Apocalypto could be attributable to shoddy scholarship but I think it stands to reason that some can be attributed to studio executives believing it would be alright to compromise the historicity of the movie for the sake of narrative cohesion.

I think it is also important to note that the movie does not claim to be based on a true story. This simple proclamation can generate understandable interest from audiences and helped power the financial success of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Apollo 13. If promotional material for the movie had featured language like this, the movie’s casual approach to history would be far more troubling in my opinion. Putting aside matters of historical accuracy, Apocalypto has many standout scenes. The scene where the village gathers to hear the story about the hole in Man has to be one of the better parables put to film and contains some incredibly rich symbolism. Audiences more interested in action than lengthy parables will also find plenty to enjoy in Apocalypto. The second half of the movie functions largely as an extended chase sequence but, owing to careful build-up beforehand and thoughtful pacing, never feels tiring. Some of the scenes in the movie are disturbingly bloody but even movie-viewers who tend to avoid the macabre will be able to appreciate the stunning photography in the movie.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Apocalypto. The movie took an approach to history too casual for my tastes but I appreciate that the movie explores a time and place largely ignored in film. Additionally, I appreciate that the movie worked well on a narrative level and that it gave performers from traditionally under-represented groups the chance to showcase their talents for a wide audience. I would not suggest the movie to anyone looking for an accurate depiction of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico but I think movie-viewers who enjoy straightforward stories and long chase sequences can find a lot to enjoy in Apocalypto.