A family divided against itself cannot stand, a brotherhood of bloodshed and betrayal, where Justice is defined by perspective. Walter Hill's revisionist Western is primarily a familial drama that utilizes genre tropes as violent set pieces but instead focuses upon the quiet moments between shootouts.
The film opens with a bank robbery in progress, guns drawn, the air thick with fear and the stench of gunpowder, as Jesse James and his gang seem to follow a well regulated routine. Suddenly, one Younger brother becomes a loose gun and murders a teller. This scene sets the tone of the film, the internal conflicts that develop between the families, and the strict consequences of disobeying Jesse's leadership. It also portrays the James/Younger gang as thieves but not murderers, Rebels who continue to fight their own war against the North, as the Pinkerton detectives are cast in an unpleasant shadow of criminality. Every character exists in these shades of grey, human qualities that add dimension without demonizing, that blurs the line between law and entitlement in a time when the country was still fractured by war. But this is no excuse for their behavior and each character suffers the consequences of their actions...and inactions.
Walter Hill channels Peckinpah in the slow motion gruesome shootouts, extended the brutality into hyperrealism, not only deconstructing the romantic western cliché where guns become phallic symbols to be respected and admired, but Hill shatters this myth with epic violence. This is no John Wayne shoot’em up where people are shot and fall down, this is a ferocious orgy of human savagery. The penultimate scene is a five minute gunfight that erupts in a Minnesota town as time slows down into an explosive bloodbath that peaks in a nihilistic crescendo. Both time and sound warp into a surreal nightmare, as the gasping whine of horses and the exclamation of rifles become a demonic guttural growl, inhuman in capacity and frightening in context. Here, men are reduced to less that animals by their own instincts.
The power of the story is in the quiet affairs: this is not an action film (though there is action), this is an insightful dissection of human behavior and motivations between lovers and brothers, where blood becomes thicker than lead and more valuable than money. Hill frames the few action sequences between a wedding, or one man’s infatuation with a prostitute (who’s not cheap), or another’s relationship with a beautiful blue-eyed girl. There’s a wonderful scene as one brother pushes this girl on a tree swing, a simple act of blossoming love/lust that could have been lifted from a daguerreotype. The film depicts the internal struggles of an extended family that is quickly becoming an anachronism (a metaphor shown in the Minnesota robbery as a steam belching machine clambers down the street moments before the plan goes awry), and who must sacrifice its limbs to save the body. The Long Riders are not long for this world.
Final Grade: (B)