Dwight Yoakam's "South of Heaven, West of Hell" is not a standard western. Honestly, it's only a western at all due to the time and place in which it's set, or at least, the time and place in which it appears to be set.
Anyone who goes into this movie with pre-conceived notions has to stop and throw them out right now. You also have to be prepared to really, really think. Dwight Yoakam may be best-known for being a hillbilly singer, but there's a rather shockingly deep brain hiding beneath that low-brimmed cowboy hat, and lurking inside that brain is a strange, esoteric, and truly bizarre story about death and what may, or may not, happen afterward.
As the story opens, we find Valentine Casey, the sheriff of the small western town of Los Tragos. The town is terrorized by a bloodthirsty mob of thieves who turn out to be Val's adopted family, the murderous Henrys. Sound like a standard western? Perhaps. But then we jump ahead a few years to find that the government is searching anxiously for Val, or Val's family, to deliver something important. Val is still seeking the Henrys, but appears to now be working as a horse trainer with his bizarre little deputy, U.S. Christmas, while he searches. Eventually, he will find the Henrys, and his search for justice will end.
That Val is haunted by the ghosts of his past is evident; what else haunts him, the landscape, and all the people who surround him, is not so immediately apparent. That Val himself may be a ghost is, perhaps, the most important facet of the story. Is Val a ghost who cannot stop going until he has completed his task? Or are they all ghosts, searching in vain for a way to finish their lives, accomplish a necessary goal, or are they merely trapped, forced to inhabit this bleak landscape for all eternity without finding redemption at all? If redemption does indeed exist for Val, perhaps he can find it by defeating the Henrys; or does his redemption exist in the beautiful Adelyne, who herself is struggling to accomplish HER post-life goal?
For me, one of the most intriguing pieces of this film was trying to make the decision whether Valentine Casey died in the Spanish-American war, as a hero in Cuba, or did he die in the disastrous, bloody massacre in Los Tragos? Has he convinced himself that the heroic death was his, to salve his pain over his failure in Los Tragos? Val is haunted by scents -- the smell of gunpowder, notably, but he also always tries to smell burning chili peppers -- as, we are told, the sense of smell leaves you in death, and all you retain are the scents that surrounded you when you died. So does Val really smell the burning chilis, meaning he died a hero in Cuba? Or is he simply trying to add that scent to the gunpowder that marked his death and subsequent failure in Los Tragos?
It's a very intriguing film. It is also beautifully shot, marking some very, very fine cinematography. I was pleasantly surprised by Dwight Yoakam as a director. The mood is set early, and scenes flow remarkably well together. It is a very long movie, which unfortunately audiences were not ready for, so it is an absolute MUST to see the DVD edition to understand the film -- the VHS edition is cut down by almost 40 minutes of necessary footage. It's also a very dark film, and darkly humorous. The bits of black comedy are all the more startling for the way they scattershot through the story--surprise, there's a laugh hidden there! It's also vitally important to actually watch this film. I'm very sorry that it never played theatres in this area so I never got the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
One of my favorite scenes contains Billy Bob Thornton as Brigadeer Smalls -- a very small, but extremely pivotal role, whose words must be listened to -- Smalls is the key, all Val has to do is listen to unlock his own mystery. And no one but a great character player like Billy Bob could deliver those lines.
By all means, if you're looking for a little light action, don't choose this film. But if you like a movie that makes you think, and question, and ponder, then you may like this as much as I did.