Entirely in the interests of clarification, no doubt, the press notes for South of Heaven, West of Hell pinpoint its genre as the 'existential western.' That description is about as useful to the modern moviegoer as a well-marked trail might be to a practiced frontier scout. It doesn't mislead, but it doesn't get you anywhere you didn't already know how to find. The western has had an 'existential' slant for more than 50 years, at least since John Wayne played the hero with a frightening murderous streak in Red River. The tag line for the movie, which insinuates that some odd events take place, is also uninformative and laughable. Telling the viewer ahead of time that it gets 'a little strange' is about on a par with tipping off that The Wild Bunch is 'a little violent'--a film that South of Heaven heavily draws upon.

Bizarre, grisly, disjointed, self-reflexive even, South of Heaven, set in a desolate stretch of land in 1907-08, is the chanciest western to get into distribution in a long time. You know it's not like much else from the beginning, when country folk watch The Great Train Robbery, and when the actor shoots at the camera, a local shoots right back. Improbably directed by country-music star Dwight Yoakam, South of Heaven keys into the bank of reposed postures, diffused-by-dust tonalities, lanky pacing and graceful framing that have gone into many of the best westerns of the past four decades, from Two Rode Together through Unforgiven. These films convey a sadness for the loss of a time, when passage through land could mean working through one's morality: In South of Heaven, the film-within-film vignette suggests how far removed we are from the era. They also broadly uphold the cause of personal justice over and against society. South of Heaven embraces the themes and guidelines of these films, and digs for a moral rot as deep as the meanest and creepiest of them. It doesn't completely find its way down, because some of its plot is plain inexplicable, and not every supporting character is fleshed out. Yoakam, seemingly, has carried within him the raw emotions of this film for years, and once he had the opportunity to unleash this stuff, it exploded out. The conflicts, vistas, rhythm and mood are of a piece, but not every personality or circumstance is fully thought through.

A synopsis of the labyrinthine story would run longer than most reviews, and, as it is a desperate, degenerate universe that Yoakam is most concerned with, it doesn't really matter. Easygoing Valentine Casey (Yoakam) has settled on a marshal job at a quiet outpost, but his foster family, a band of misfits, cretins and worse, crosses his path and wants him back. After Valentine turns them away, they maraud his town. Valentine swears to bring them to justice, or kill them trying, and on his journey meets a gallery of characters weird and multitudinous enough to belong in Melville. (The players include Peter and Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton, Bud Cort, Paul Reubens and Warren Zevon.) When he next comes across the brood, it has just laid siege to another whistle-stop. Valentine, with his buddy U.S. Christmas (Terry McIlvain), tracks down the gang and confronts the father, brothers and sister who adopted him in a deranged showdown.

South of Heaven could be read as a tale of dysfunctional family life, exteriorized in the Wild West, which would account for its disproportionately gruesome paybacks, and sense of moving ahead through time in spurts. Why else would thieves raid a gangly town for its paltry loot with a machine gun, when showing a few pistols would do the job? But it's also true that Yoakam engages with the form of the western, finding his own nostalgia and poetry for landscape, and putting his face and ours close to brutality in the moral, unflinching manner representative of the genre. Yoakam wants to inspect dastardliness with even greater dispassion than some past masters. There are a lot of inactive moments in South of Heaven that allow us to absorb the meaning of terrible deeds. Yoakam stumbles, mainly because the father figure isn't fully drawn. But he still brings across a tone of insufferable evil that's stifling.

--Peter Henne