From the Depths: 'Wild Bill'
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
The screen explodes repeatedly into a circus of grim and artificial violence. First on the open plains, then in a ramshackle trading post, a saloon, a crowded street. It is brief and decisive, utterly devoid of tension. There is no story. Only a sad-eyed, shaggy-haired figure connects these murders, but there is a sense that he forgets the last act of cruelty just as soon as the film cuts away. My hackneyed poetics aside, this is how Wild Bill begins. These vignettes come after a standard and uninformative funeral prologue set to “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms,” the first but not the only time the song would accompany a cowboy embodied by Jeff Bridges being laid to rest (the second was, of course, the Coens’ adaptation of True Grit). It is in the first minutes of the film, the trite funeral and the disjointed, benign spurts of violence, that all its strengths and failings are made abundantly clear.
Following a run of box office hits and cult classics, the notoriously tactless director Walter Hill entered the final act of his career. This act has been ongoing for the last quarter century and has produced, on average, forgettable oddities, and at worst, offensive trash that is better left unmentioned. This “late style” (if I want to open that can of worms) is a far cry from the grimy, unrestrained chaos of 48 Hrs. and the visionary precision of Streets of Fire. Rather than try and recapture the magic of his early years, Hill took the admirable route of reflection, but, by my estimation, has failed to find anything of meaning in his own past, save for whatever it is he unearths in 1995’s Wild Bill.
Though Hill considers his entire filmography to be westerns in the thematic sense, Wild Bill is one of only two proper westerns that the director managed to complete. Cobbled together from a play (Thomas Babe’s Fathers and Sons), a novel (Pete Dexter’s Deadwood), and a previous screenplay based on the life of Bill Hickok by Ned Wynn, Hill’s final script is deeply bizarre and often misguided from its prophetic beginning to its sudden end. Most of the movie’s impressive devices come as a result of Hill’s direction, primarily the ultra high contrast flashbacks that appear to be shot with digital cameras, though I’ve been unable to confirm this.
Like many of the movie’s strengths, the application of this effect is frequently inexplicable in placement. Though chiefly utilized in flashbacks, it appears elsewhere without warning, notably in the funeral prologue. This scene also introduces Wild Bill’s worst device: John Hurt’s narration. Though the delivery is in the ever beautiful, wistful, world-weary timbre I expect from Hurt, the narration is virtually pointless and often insultingly didactic. After this prologue, however, the movie recovers and transitions to my favorite sequence: the aforementioned string of murders.
These vignettes are preceded by a brief exchange between Bridges and James Gammon, the poetic dialogue would be laughable if it weren’t so blunt and earnest. As the violence begins, the screen fades to white, marking our entry into “the theater of Bill’s life,” as Hurt later describes it. Each gruesome scenario heightens its level of artifice, with impossible physics, exaggerated camera movements, and non-diegetic lighting. Rather than rationalize or explain Bill’s legendary exploits, Hill’s camera looks on calmly as he dispatches a group of well armed trappers. By all odds, Bill should be dead, much less wholly unscathed. Yet, he stands lazily over the corpses and lethargically declares, “You ought to know better than to touch another man’s hat.” Such a strange and illustrative sequence is at odds with the prologue that seems unable to stop itself from lifelessly retreading familiar territory. I found that both sensibilities were in constant conflict throughout Wild Bill, neither ever quite coming out on top, but both in service of Hill’s elusive thematic ends.
The mythic, Brechtian spectacle of the opening makes Bill out to be something of a western superhero. Hill immediately makes clear that his western will not be pulling back any curtain to reveal something raw beneath the typical western folk hero. The Bill Hickok in this fantasy is everything the legend says and more, cruelty and callousness included. To Hill, these latter qualities make Hickok a greater figure still. As the movie’s greatest asset, Bridges portrays Bill wonderfully, imbuing every line with banality and nihilism. It’s this performance that holds Wild Bill together in its weakest moments, keeping me entertained during the ninety minutes that remain after the opening, as Hickok wastes away in the town of Deadwood. Scenes too consciously poetic for their own good are crammed between elaborate, nightmarish compositions of opium dens and dangling cages that bear condemned men. Just as can be seen from the beginning, the movie is at its worst when it lets its characters blabber too much and its best when Hill finds some new layer of artifice to illustrate his points. The greatest (and only successful) marriage of Hill’s two modes in Wild Bill can be found in the previously mentioned fades to white catered throughout. At once an illustration of Bill’s glaucoma and, as Hurt’s character later defines it, “the blinding white light of heaven,” it makes Bill out to be the terse, gaudy, macho, biblical figure that Hill sees him as.
No doubt shoddy in much of its construction and ideologically incongruous, this overwrought profundity enraptured me. Wild Bill is not among my favorite westerns or my favorite Hill movies by any means, but it got through to me in the right moments. Despite all of its myriad shortcomings, I genuinely cared. Perhaps Hill’s last good film, his final western is an elegy for all of the preoccupations that spattered his filmic glory days; his folktale populated by boorish agents of cruelty.
“From the Depths” is a recurring column where the central conceit is that I bumble ignorantly into the vast realm of widely unseen movies, scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of hidden gems or, at the very least, interesting disasters.
Wild Bill is streaming on Tubi.