The Magnificent Seven (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16May/170

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Bartholomew Bogues has the town of Rose Creek in the grip of terror.  Either they'll sell him their land, or he'll kill them where they stand.  In desperation, the townsfolk gather what money they can with the aim of hiring help to take out the vicious Bogues.  Sam Chisolm, a drifter with his own past involving Bogues, takes the offer and starts assembling a team to free Rose Creek.  Antoine Fuqua directs The Magnificent Seven, with the screenplay written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, and stars Denzel Washington, Peter Sarsgaard, and Chris Pratt.

Contrary to popular belief, The Civil War is still being fought.  Sure, the violence has scaled down considerably, but with each black church going up in flames or gathering of Confederate flag-waving Klansmen we get stark reminders that the scars of the Confederacy are deep in the DNA of the southern United States.  Then there are more subtle signs I was privy to going to school in South Carolina.  Talks of the "War of Northern Aggression", teasing "Yankees" out of class, and the too-often drop of the n-word from white fellas who have never had cause to use it.

There's nothing so brazen as the n-word in Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven, which would have surprised me as Fuqua is the director whose action movies are filled with social commentary.  The "good guys" of Olympus Has Fallen would starve thousands of innocent people if they won, and Fuqua's direct stab at the "working class" always being white has a direct challenge in the tool-filled final action scene of The Equalizer.  A passing glance through The Magnificent Seven wouldn't be promising as Joshua (Chris Pratt) mocks his Mexican comrade, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), in so direct and insulting a way that Joshua might consider running for President.  Throw in Joshua's tendency to refer to The Civil War as, "The War of Northern Aggression," and you'd be forgiven for thinking The Magnificent Seven as timely and kind to the Confederacy as Gone With The Wind.

My note on Peter Sarsgaard's introduction as Bartholomew Bogue, "Could you be any more the villain?"  Answer - nope, and Sarsgaard has a hell of a time letting his creepy side flourish in The Magnificent Seven.

Then the relationship between Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) further raises my eyebrow.  Robicheaux's having a panic attack, Sam tries calming him by saying the Civil War is long over, and "What we lost in the fire we'll find in the ashes."  A thoughtful sentiment for sure - but what in the hell is a black Union soldier doing by comforting a white former Confederate sniper, apparently the deadliest at Appomattox?  There's no tension between the two considering the latter fought for the enslavement of the former.  I damn near lost it when Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) joins the crew and has his face painted in red, white, and blue colors.

I think the big issue with these character relationships and bizarre ignorance of historical context is due to the involvement of Nic Pizzolatto on the screenplay.  Pizzolatto, who cowrote the screenplay with Richard Wenk, is a gifted writer as evidenced by the "ashes" comment from Sam to Robicheaux, and I'll defend large swaths of True Detective season 2 until I have cause to rethink it all.  Pizzolatto's style breaks down when he has to handle multiple relationships because of his character's tendency to speak in poems and symbols.  That kind of metaphor-laden dialogue works with two folks, but when you have a whole mess of characters and are distilling hundreds of years of history into fresh conflict after the Civil War then the lyricism of Pizzolatto begins to look silly at best.

These are huge problems.  I also loved most of The Magnificent Seven.  The positions aren't contradictory, and it's the problems with The Magnificent Seven that also highlight the strengths.  I keep bringing up Pizzolatto's "ashes" comment because it's a damn good one, bolstered by funny lines from Sam when his crew asks what to do if he's killed, "Then just shoot him in the head, hell, I dunno, avenge me."  Pizzolatto's drift toward the poetic also finds a great home in the dialogue of uber-villain Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who says of the townsfolk he is tormenting, "If God didn't want 'em sheared, he wouldnta made them sheep."

Fuqua directs the hell out of The Magnificent Seven, working with cinematographer Mauro Fiore to craft a Western's dream of Westerns.  Bogue cashes in his villain bonafides with high angle shots focusing on his black clothed body as his forehead screams for some moisture to break the eerie calm.  Callbacks to classic Western's litter the major fights, with Sam looking like The Man With No Name reborn in wide-angle closeups when he's angling to get his vengeance.  There's even time to switch to a horror motif as Denali (Jonathan Joss), the Comanche of Bogue's forces, stalks his prey in a quiet moment of the climactic firefight.

Haley Bennett, as Emma Cullen, plays a woman whose skill with firearms haunts the other men, and serves as another reference to past Westerns as an updated Mary Kate Danaher.

In his own way, Fuqua created a postmodern Western that rivals Tarantino's Django Unchained by mixing the ahistorical screenplay with his signature panache and knowing callbacks to other Westerns.  This is especially true when I consider who gets to walk away victorious in The Magnificent Seven.  The nature of the story means we're going to see a 29% to 43% survival rate of the main cast, so it's no surprise not everyone survives.  But consider who survives, who gets to carry the myth of their victory on to the next town, and what that means for cinema.

The lesson of Django Unchained was that the America's history of racial hate has suppressed stories that could rival those of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.  The Magnificent Seven embraces that lesson, showing an alternate world where the myth of the west could have been built on African, Korean, Native, and Mexican-American souls.  They fought, bled, and died just as much as their pale skinned compatriots, and are no less worthy of respect.  We need to tell those stories, even if it means working out a few warts in presentation along the way, because they're vital to our history and our art.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Screenplay written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk.
Starring Denzel Washington, Peter Sarsgaard, and Chris Pratt.

Posted by Andrew

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