Wild Bill (1995)
Directed by Walter Hill
Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 at IFC Center’s “Walter Hill at Midnight“
Half delusional, half haunted, Walter Hill’s Wild Bill takes historical “revisionism” to insane heights, splintering the idea of Western heroism into a thousand pieces. Psychology and legend intertwine throughout Hill’s kaleidoscope visual aesthetic, where the dirt and grime of Bill’s colorized present spins out of control to include blown-out black and white memories, and back again. The signs of genre demolition are apparent from the very beginning, as Charles Pince’s (John Hurt) raspy voice echoes like a god over Bill’s well-attended funeral procession. “By luck or design it had fallen to him to play the hero’s part,” Pince futilely states as the coffin passes his perch, the irony being that nothing in the following storyline will resemble that of an easily defined archetype.
After a series of brutally violent vignettes chart Wild Bill Hickock’s (Jeff Bridges) most notorious killings in the 1860’s, Hill settles on the man’s final days in Deadwood, where a blubbering man-child named McCall (David Arquette) looks to settle an old score with the long-haired gunslinger. This simple narrative arc is eviscerated by jarring flashbacks that may or may not truthfully represent Bill’s past experiences, the most fascinating being a psychedelic confrontation with a band of Sioux Indians reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Here more than ever, Hill uses telephoto lenses to collapse the frame, compressing the wide-angle panoramas into suffocating close-ups. For Bill, wide open Western spaces usually synonymous with freedom and individualism represent nothing more than a prison of iconography.
If Bill in all his tormented glory seems fixated on re-imagining the past in order to make sense of its traumatic fluidity, loyal friends like Calamity Jane (the great Ellen Barkin) constantly attempt to reaffirm his legendary status as an icon. His “heroic” actions are the only thing that makes sense in this world of deformed morality. This thematic dichotomy reveals layers of repression and emotion bursting from the seams of a dusty blood-caked Western universe spinning off its axis. While Hill once again brings the pain with the type of thunderous, canon-like pistol fire he patented to perfection in films like the great Extreme Prejudice, Wild Bill strives to be an altogether different beast; a raw treatise on the poetic underbelly of male self-destruction.