Jonah Hex (2010)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

There are few things are likely to make me question my sanity as the only critic other than Armand White to find fault with a film. It's ever weirder being the only other critic to positively review a movie. I went into Jonah Hex expecting a laughable failure. There are few things more enjoyable than a movie that's so-bad-it's-good, and that's what I expected. Only 7% of top critics at Rotten Tomatoes rated it positively, so my expectations seemed justified. I was extremely confused coming out of the movie. I hadn't read any full reviews, but I couldn't understand what critics hated about it. Frankly, I loved it. As with any great action film, it only took about 5 minutes to figure out I was in for something special. Once again, the critical consensus is dead wrong: Jonah Hex is the best action movie so far this year.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is a Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter. Having been on both ends of heinous acts, he has been outcast from polite society, emerging only to do the dirty work of post-bellum law enforcement. He is very much in the mold of a Leone anti-hero. He roves from town to town, mercilessly dispatching anyone who does him wrong. He has an undefined relationship with Lilah (Megan Fox), a prostitute in one of the many towns he floats through on occasion. On one of his infrequent visits to Lilah, he learns that an old enemy (John Malkovich) who he'd thought to be dead had resurfaced, and is plotting to destroy the post-bellum peace. Hex, with his curious ability to confer with the dead, is the only person who can stop him.

There seem to have been two principle criticisms of the film. First, some claimed that it 'had no plot'. Second, many of the elements to the plot (or lack thereof?) seemed to be loosely stitched together. There is some superficial basis to these claims. To the extent they're true, they are virtues rather than vices.

The critics were oblivious to the subtleties that undergirded the film. The film drew heavily from a handful of genres: steampunk, superhero, western, and a splash of poetic realism. The steampunk genre requires observers to suspend belief about history and technology. Some, like Roger Ebert were not willing to do so. The superhero genre requires further suspension of disbelief, both in terms of physics, and the relative importance of the character. One shouldn't be flummoxed by a superhero bringing someone back from the dead, or being called into the oval office. These are the type of things that happen in superhero movies. It's like complaining that James Bond gets the girl, or that Garfield eats lasagna.

Ultimately, Jonah Hex is a character study. Characters who have been so abused by history, that they are almost unrecognizable. From the obvious deformity of Jonah's face, to the deadness of Lilah's eyes, it is clear that their humanity has nearly been extinguished by circumstances. Their ambiguous relationships reminds one more of two frostbite victims huddling together than a pair of lovers. Brolin and Fox were almost mechanical in their roles, and that is exactly as it ought to have been. Any moral progress Hex makes is almost accidental; a side effect of his drive for revenge. He is constantly walking the line between catharsis and damnation.

Jimmy Hayward has shown that he is not simply one of the best animators on the planet, but also a very capable director. It's ironic that the third installment of the Toy Story franchise (he was animator for the first two) came out on the same day, with the opposite critical reaction. Hayward deserves credit for taking a risk, and creating a film that didn't aim for the lowest common denominator. This is a film for cinephiles. It contains a plethora of subtle references to legendary genre films, while eschewing the excesses of the Tarantinos of the world. I only wish it had a long enough theatrical run for me to see it again.