Tab Murphy’s Last Of The Dogmen is a beautiful story, providing assurance that on a rapidly shrinking modern world there can still be some undiscovered wonder to be found, sometimes in the last place anyone would look. Tom Berenger, gruff as ever, stars as Lewis Gates, a rural bounty hunter charged with pursuing a gaggle of escaped felons who’ve hightailed it into Montana wilderness so dense that the usual branches of law can’t track them. Joined by his anthropologist friend (Barbara Hershey), he searches day and night for these convicts, and in the process finds something far more incredible. Buried far in the heart of this mostly untouched frontier is a tribe of Native Americans, thought to be wiped out by settlers generations earlier, living since then with no contact to the outside world. Gates is wary but fascinated, while Hershey recognizes this for the miracle it is and tries her best to communicate with the people, who in turn are fiercely protective of their land, especially towards the escaped prisoners who have wandered onto it as well. Hot on Berenger’s tail as well is his ex father in law (Kurtwood Smith) who is also the county Sheriff, bitter towards him for a past tragedy, volatile and unpredictable, another risky faction to flare up conflict between all sides. The action is kept to a necessary minimum, and the real meat of the piece lies in the pure spectacle of their situation, a reverence for both parties involved and a keen eye for interaction between human beings who couldn’t be more different yet have shared the same region for eons. The Native actors, including Sidel Standing Elk, Dawn Lavand, Eugene Blackbear and Steve Reevis, are all superb, as are Berenger and Smith. The real magic comes cascading through the lens of cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who beautifully captures Banff National Park in it’s full glory, as well as other such locations not far from my Canadian home. The film hangs onto the notion that there is still undiscovered splendour out there, from rushing rivers to ancient mountains, and the mysterious tribes who once, and perhaps still do, call it home.
Ron Howard usually plays it both straight and safe, never taking too many risks, never siding too much with abstraction or grey areas, and over the years this has made me somewhat of a non fan. Not a hater, simply seldom blown away or challenged by his work. With The Missing, however, he strayed from the path and brought us a dark, threatening picture of life on the frontier in all its brutal, treacherous glory. With the success of last year’s brilliant Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this beauty, as there are elements of horror and evil dancing on a thread with origin points in both films. Different altogether, but from the same elemental stew and highly reminiscent of each other. Cate Blanchett is hard bitten single mother Magdalena, trying her best to raise two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and the excellent Jenna Boyd) with only the help of her sturdy farmhand (Aaron Eckhart). One misty night, someone or something snatches Wood right out of her bed and disappears into the wilderness with her. Magdalena is raw and determined, launching a desperate search across woods and plains to find her kin. Joining her is her half breed injun father Samuel, played by an eerily convincing Tommy Lee Jones. Samuel left her years before and only re-emerges in her life for fear of being punished for forsaking his family in the beyond. Gradually he turns around and a bond is formed through the crisis, an arc which Jones nails like the pro he is. It turns out they are tracking a group of despicable human traffickers who take girls and sell them across the border into sex slavery. They are led by a mysterious witchdoctor (Eric Schweig) whose tactics border on voodoo prowess. It’s scary stuff, never outright horror, but sure aims for that with its hazy nocturnal atmosphere in which any denizen of the night could be poised behind the next thicket or cluster of trees, ready to pounce. Blanchett is tough as nails, a terrific female protagonist blessed with a mother’s love and a winchester to back it up. Jones is gruff and badass, believable as a native american and treated as a well rounded character seeking redemption in his twilight years. There’s also fine work from Steve Reevis, Clint Howard, Elizabeth Moss and a cool cameo from Val Kilmer as a sergeant who helps them out. My favourite Ron Howard film by far. Just a mean, dark genre piece that aims to thrill and chill in equal measures and comes up aces.