Friday, February 3, 2023


Not to be confused with Atonement or TV's Justified, the movie I went to see last week is a western, shot in the Badlands of North Dakota, featuring an outlaw starting to question his robbery gang loyalties and a nun trying to deliver a solid-gold sacramental vessel to a convent in Williston. No big names are in it or behind the camera, but you wouldn't know the difference because the writing, acting, directing, cinematography and musical score are top notch. It's an intelligent tragedy with a good villain, complex characters, and (I learned) conscious allusions to other films as well as to Shakespeare and Christian theology – though it's not (you may be relieved to learn), I repeat not, a Christian apologetics movie. It's just a period tragedy that will challenge viewers to think back to their Sunday School studies and figure out which character is being sanctified throughout the movie. Parts of it will leave you emotionally wrecked.

As a bonus for the audience the night I went to see it, the theater owner had a Q&A after the film with its writer-director, Nickolaus Swedlund, and the actor who plays the heavy, Andrew Wheeler. Not counting that interesting opportunity – like a live, in-person DVD extra – here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Sister Hildegard (Tiffany Cornwell) tearfully tells ne'er-do-well Weston (Daniel Bielinski) that she'll "pray for him" after he insults her faith in the most brutally hurtful way. It was observed during the Q&A that "I'll pray for you" is a Christian's strongest insult, like a southern belle's "Bless your heart." (2) Anytime Shaw (Wheeler) starts giving his speech about how his daddy taught him (and he repaid the favor) that there's a way to insert the knife so that it isn't the wound that kills, but the removal of the blade. What a monster! (3) Weston has a final shoot-out with Shaw, and for a frozen moment, you don't know which of them has wounded the other. Wheeler himself described it as a moment from a samurai movie.

You may have to look hard for this movie, because it won't go into wide theatrical distribution, though I think it will stream online pretty soon and maybe go out on DVD. In theaters, I think it mostly played across North Dakota last year, and folks in my town are fortunate to have a local movie theater owned by a film school classmate of Swedlund. It's worth a look, though – an artistically powerful western film the likes of which are hard to make when star power is attached to it, proving that you don't need a star to have power.

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