There's a peculiar rightness to Walter Hill's making a wonderful, ruminative movie in the mid-1990s about Wild Bill Hickok. After a beautiful tableau of Hickok's funeral, the first twenty minutes of Wild Bill blow the top of your head off; the next seventy-seven pack brains and feeling back in. That could be a metaphor for the careers of Hill and others who came of age during American film's creative explosion twenty years ago. Along with Brian De Palma, who broke through with Carrie (1976), and Martin Scorsese, with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Hill, who made his debut as a director in 1975 with the Charles Bronson bare-knuckle-boxing movie Hard Times, was seen as one of Hollywood's Young Turks; they were hailed by supporters as cinematic sharpshooters and criticized by denigrators as exploitative sadists. In a 1980 Saturday Review article, "The Brutalists: Making Movies Mean and Ugly," Hill took the unkindest cuts of all. About Hill's comment "Someday I'm going to make a really violent film--like Elektra," the essayist Robert F. Moss sniffily wrote, "Nice try, but even when violence abounds in a literary classic, it shares the stage with great poetry, character development, insight, and a sense of humanity--qualities that are ignored and even scorned by the brutalists." Of course, these directors aren't brutalists--they're fabulists. In their movies poetry is visual and kinetic, character is revealed through action, insight is gained from outward perception, and humanity is tested in extremis.
(scheduled to be released this month) starts out as a ripsnorting biopic of James Butler Hickok (1837-1876)--a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War, and then a lawman, a gambler, and a gunfighter. As soon as Hickok hits the boomtown of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, the movie turns into a memory play. Black-and-white images of Hickok's life slither through his brain as the past comes back to haunt him in the form of his soon-to-be assassin, Jack McCall. The film climaxes in a Beckett-like existential farce, as McCall can't quite work himself up to kill Wild Bill and the hero ponders whether his own life is worth saving. As Bill, Jeff Bridges has dash and size and depth--stoic fury and heroic resignation. The robust, voluble James Gammon, as Bill's buffalo-hunting partner, California Joe, and the deft, courtly John Hurt, as an English gambler named Charley Prince (who narrates), are classic sidekicks. Diane Lane, as Bill's ravaged true love, Susannah Moore (in this telling, Jack McCall's mother), and Ellen Barkin, as a blustery, yearning Calamity Jane (she wants Bill to love her as he loved Susannah), are spirited rural heroines. They fill boots vacated by Hollywood legends long ago. But the movie is no sentimental throwback. Wild Bill looks at the Old West with both eyes open--and doesn't blink.