Letterboxd Review - Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story (2017)

This DVD cover needs more photoshopped flames.
This movie is kinda ass. Sorry, that's what I got us both into. This is a perfectly functional Western story's skeleton, but the connective tissue that makes it a movie is missing. Am I punching down on this one? Yeah, slightly. But look, no one in their right mind would watch this movie after seeing that poster/cover image, so indulge me in my ravings about it.

You don't get more by-the-numbers than this Western plot: outlaw goes straight, old grudges come home to roost, peaceful farmer becomes unstoppable gunslinger to defend his home. It's fun-cliche for me, not cringe-cliche. But with something as basic as that for a story, it is left to the cast's charisma and the technical filmmaking to prop it up, and they cannot hold it true. The actors paid to recite lines for Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story are palpably un-engaged with each other and the material, and the only word to portray the technical side of the movie is "clumsy."

Trace Adkins, going full Kris Kristofferson, comes darn close to fitting the bill for what his job here is as the gruff antihero. He's a decent enough tough guy, a common player in Western cheapies like this one, and while his acting is not the worst a country music star has ever done he still gives off a stiffness that communicates his discomfort with playing pretend. It's like if Ted Levine had Hayden Christensen's off-kilter James Dean vibe. Meanwhile, Kim Coates is definitely your man if you can't afford Walton Goggins to play your loquacious psycho villain. He's effective here as a stone-cold creep, as he was on "Sons of Anarchy," but he has trouble fitting into the "more civilized than thou art" Lee Van Cleef blackhat role. He's also saddled with providing all the emotional energy for the big confrontations, as Adkins dutifully follows the script and stares stoically.

Judd Nelson should be in more things. Maybe it's the deluge of charm from Adkins, but Nelson's captivating stare from his youth is still employable, and he still wields it well. Even playing a grizzled old crook with an emphasis on comic timing, he projects more confidence and screen presence than everyone else here. Yeah, John Bender! I know! I kind of wish he had been cast as lead, the former hellraiser with the thousand yard stare, and Adkins could play the slightly goofy old sidekick. That's a much better fit, but tell that to the obvious boost in ego the film was for one of them.

As far as the film itself, it is strung together haphazardly and made of mundane materials, but I don't doubt the effort and love that went into it. Like a macaroni necklace. Director Terry Miles has many years of good work ahead of him that he probably won't get enough recognition for, especially if he heads for television or commercial work. I think he has an eye for television; that is to say, Miles seems to appreciate a serialized approach to storytelling. Scenes and sequences of Stagecoach seem to end abruptly on a mundane bit of dialogue--as if it were the thesis statement of the scene--only to cut to black, hang there for a few agonizing seconds, and simply fade back up onto the next scene. The film has commercial breaks built into it. This structural problem is exacerbated by some splashy Rockwell font title cards popping up continually with the conspicuous pomp of chapter headings, but are usually time markers like "THREE DAYS LATER." These cards, fully rendered wood grain background behind gigantic old-timey letters, fade all the way up and sit for a good few seconds before fading all the way down to black, and I'm pretty sure the slow transitions helped get this film to feature length, like when you adjust your margins and font size to make your term paper an extra page.

 I feel like a better film might have conveyed the passage of time in a visual way, perhaps involving the characters. A big studio movie would have shown Kim Coates rise to power as the odious Marshall, and hunt down the first gang member. But this is a straight-to-DVD movie starring Trace Adkins, so all of that is given in ten seconds of mumbled dialogue. Never are more than five or six people in the frame at once, and there's no tried-and-true dusty Western town filled with bystanders. Because that shit is admittedly expensive. So, Stagecoach takes the Kevin Smith approach to big plot points and relies heavily on the flow of its dialogue to paint a vivid picture of something outside the director's budget. The result is ninety minutes of Trace Adkins looking weary while slugging back fake apple cider whiskey while the plot is told to him.

And as if this wasn't preposterous enough of a way to run a railroad, we find out in the third act that this movie spans the better part of a decade. YEARS pass. These Rockwell font title cards never make mention of half a dozen years just falling off the calendar, so that gave me a bad jolt. No one ages at all. This looks like it could all take place in a weekend (and it probably was shot as such). Since we never actually see any other robberies, any encounters in town, any posses chasing them, any actual events taking place...we never actually see the years where Nathaniel Reed transforms into Texas Jack. He's just idly given the moniker by his drunken sidekicks, and the movie proceeds to the final arc from there. There's no build up of this dual identity thing, there's no comment on him changing at all. So weird. Like, you know that nagging feeling when you wonder how long Luke Skywalker was training on Dagobah? Was it months, weeks, or mere hours? Imagine when Luke is finally rescued in the Millennium Falcon, and Leia says, "Where have you been for the last fifteen years, dude?!"

When we do get an inevitable shootout, robbery, or action sequence, we see mastery of some nifty techniques that make Stagecoach look like a splashy studio Western in fits and starts. The slow motion shots helpfully add some dramatic heft that the characters and story fail to build beforehand. Cinematographer/Camera Operator Jan Klompje played around with angles and did their homework on the genre's basic visual language, and even managed some picturesque landscape shots when not shooting in the same woodland clearing over and over. But advantages such as these are almost instantly used as crutches. Almost all high speed horse riding is shot in slow motion, which tells me someone might not know how to ride a horse as fast as his character does. Any time a fateful bullet is fired--Adkins' character maims Coates' character in the inciting incident that leads to the revenge plot--the editing fails us completely. For a moment I thought Coates shot himself by ricochet. It's the first of several pivotal gunshots in the film that are completely undercut by its inability to merely convey that someone was actually hit.

It's all just so damned clumsy. But the shortcomings of some underfunded, clearly capable journeyman crew members should not outshine the missteps of the screenplay. Matt Williams and Dan Benamor, the credited writers, have some degree of experience at the straight-to-DVD cheapo level as well as several web series comedies, and if that sounds like a weird fit for this project that's because it is. The dialogue of Stagecoach is, consequently, peppered with some odd anachronistic diction, such as someone noting something happened "Back in the day," or mocking the villain by proclaiming "You got nothin', Calhoun!" I think Coates even shouts at one point that he wants everyone to "see this live!" which I'd venture was not a common phrase before the invention of recording devices. That stinks, but the structural issues of the story are way worse. The "TWO WEEKS EARLIER" stuff, which has us jumping back and forth so often that the already insubstantial timeline is even more unreadable, feels like the writers had just come back from seeing The Hateful Eight and decided that they too can use a preposterous omniscient POV to engage in ten-minute flashbacks just to provide context and backstory for the scene that was just interrupted. When Tarantino does stuff like that, he at least takes care to weave it into the rhythm of a scene and highlight the absurdity of it for just a moment before shamelessly using such a shortcut.

The failure in making a Western like this one is making a film that feels so small. There are about five full characters in this film, and really only one or two major locations. One of those is "inside a rustic farmhouse." That's a waste of the genre, frankly. This film could have been a modern day heist film with the exact same plot, something closer to Hell or High Water, and that might have made it a more interesting story and saved a lot of the budget. The setting has no bearing on how the story is told anyhow, or what themes it hopes to endorse. That's a no-no for Westerns. The scenery, the land, it has to play a part. Otherwise, you have a Victorian era drama, and a sleepy one at that.

Of course, one has to consider the production level, the crew's experience, and the possible lack of security in funding. It would be ridiculous to judge this movie against studio fare like 3:10 to Yuma, although it is worth noting how much of that film is held together by the captivating performances in it, as most good Westerns operate. There is a reason why new filmmakers, especially the independent ones, tend to gravitate toward horror: it's a genre that is high on the technical experiences, low on costs (especially if you can shoot without a permit in the woods), and it lends itself well to crappy production value because bad photography can cover dodgy effects and act as an injection of realism for your "found footage" stuff. It doesn't hurt that most horror films only require the actors to convey various levels of pain, fear, and disgust, which can all be rolled into the same shriek. The reason why the Western genre has evaporated over the years and has never been very viable for indie projects is because it's now so damned expensive and requires a lot of specialized training and experience. How many aspiring filmmakers have access to an army of horses and expert riders? How about an arsenal of period-accurate weapons? Sets? Yeah. It's a nightmare. That's why Stagecoach: the Texas Jack Story often reverts to two or three people talking quietly. Westerns are not meant to be small, so making one so requires a light touch and some kind of flourish. This, meanwhile, feels like everyone's embarrassing Super-8 teen horror films, because it has the lack of basic polish but also a lack of any sort of feisty indie experimentation or fluency, just a rote recitation of the standard with a noticeably sparse background.

Rating: ✰ 1/2

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This review is part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile. Follow him on that platform for additional movie lists and reviews not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from his book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

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