Sweetwater is a slightly campy Western that takes on two of the standard tropes of the genre. In the movie’s opening, we’re introduced to the Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs), who we quickly come to realize is a bad man. Cornelius Jackson (Ed Harris) eventually rides into town, displacing the residing sheriff and taking up the badge. Cornelius already knows that the Prophet Josiah is a bad man, which is a nice turn because the viewer also knows this, so we don’t have to suffer through Cornelius only slowly coming to the realization that Josiah is not a proper holy man but the frontier town’s villain. This sets up the first genre trope, a tale of the Law trying to bring the Black Hat to justice.
Meanwhile, early in the film we are also introduced to Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) and Sarah (January Jones), a couple that recently set up a small crop field on the outskirts of this frontier town. When we first meet the couple, Jones is full of smiles and love and, truthfully, she’s lovely. I know, I know. I was taken aback as well. But don’t worry, because her happiness doesn’t last long, thanks to our resident Black Hat doing some bad things to Sarah and her family. Director Logan Miller (who co-wrote the film with his brother Noah) gives Jones free reign to get her b*tchface on, something which Jones is only too happy to do. And thus we get the second genre trope, a good ol’ fashioned Western revenge.
Like any old-fashioned Western, Sweetwater is a simple film, one part Revenge and one part Justice, mixed together with a healthy serving of Shoot Everyone. But it’s also campy, to the detriment of the first half of the film where we spend a little more time with some of the periphery characters. So, for example, Stephen Root’s banker is presented as this supreme sleaze and it only works because he’s Stephen Root and he’s able to give his character a hint of nuance to take the edge off the camp. But some of the other character actors are less equipped for this and take a more straightforward and heavy-handed approach (this is particularly the case with the sheriff who Cornelius will eventually oust). So off-putting was the camp that about 20 minutes into the movie, I gave serious consideration to walking out.
The reason I stuck with it was because I wanted to see Harris and Isaacs together in their inevitable confrontation. I was surprised that the confrontation came so quickly; Cornelius is onto the Prophet Josiah from the start, so it doesn’t take long for him to let the Black Hat know that Justice is in town. With that scene, I was in it for the long haul. While it may be that Sheriff Cornelius is the campiest of all the characters, Harris is an absolute delight in the role. It’s no surprise Ed Harris knows what he’s doing, and so a role that could have been a disaster with anyone else is a downright treat with the way Harris is so all-in, despite the weird mountaintop monologues and ridiculously bizarre dances. The first time he called the Prophet Josiah “Josie,” I was hooked.
Then we come to Sarah’s Revenge. Jones’ Sarah is an old school Western vigilante character (but for the fact that she’s a she), and Jones nails it as she sets out to take down those who wronged her and her family. There may be some who will say that she’s not acting at this point because Jones is cold and mean in real life. But I don’t buy that nonsense; Jones is stone cold, determined and steely. Remember when Betty Draper puled out that shotgun? It’s that, put on ice. The highest compliment I can give January Jones is that when the film cuts away from Harris or Isaacs to her, I did not find myself itching to get back to them.
For the squeamish among you, it should be noted that there’s considerable violence here. It’s Tarantino-esque in its level of camp, although it’s not quite as graphic or excessive. However, the violence fits in with what the film seems to be going for. Sweetwater is not earth shattering cinema; it’s not a major update or unpacking of the genre. It’s looking to have a fun little time in the Old West, a simple goal that’s easy to hit.