Reckon yourself a sinner and living in the late 1800s? Don’t head to Sweetwater, a saccharine-sounding town in New Mexico run by a renegade preacher named Josiah who fancies himself God’s right hand man – you’ll wind up six feet under in the dust with your horse atop your grave. Unless, that is, you’re a vengeful widow bent on ridding the town of all the vile scum that has wormed its way into the seedy underbelly of government.
That woman is Sarah Ramirez (January Jones), raised by a woman of ill repute who also took up the trade and decided to leave it behind after marrying Miguel (Eduardo Noriega), a Mexican farmer. At the start of the film, they’ve set up a small farm on the edge of town, but they’re often harassed by the residents of Sweetwater because of Sarah’s reputation and Miguel’s ethnicity.
Sweetwater spends a lot of its first half exploring the problems within the town. It’s deemed the Holy Land by the prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs), a place where worshipers can feel the hand of God, but Josiah himself is a terribly hypocritical preacher who has two wives, kills sinners, and uses manipulative threats to drive people from their land. But Josiah isn’t the only problem; the little, religious town of Sweetwater is full of rascally rapscallions, like the banker (Stephen Root) who charges security fees or the sheriff (Luce Rains) who won’t investigate the killing of the Ramirez’s dog.
It’s not a new theme in westerns, especially in revenge-driven flicks, but Sweetwater overcomes overused genre tropes with its development of protagonist Sarah, a woman who is more than capable of storming a saloon with just her pistol. Jones plays the role gingerly; the audience is meant to find Sarah sweet on the outside and sour underneath, and director Logan Miller even visualizes that development in a scene where Sarah roams topless through the water only to turn around with guns blazing.
The film steals much of Sarah’s pride away from her before she gets her comeuppance; in a carefully crafted scene where Josiah rapes her, the film resembles horror revenge films without the exploitative nature of the rape. That means Sweetwater works in much the same way as those movies, but it’s more nuanced thanks to the addition of Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) as a lawman looking to bring Josiah to justice after he murders a couple of stranded cowboys out on the prairie.
For the most part, Sweetwater is great western with a mix of inspirations including the Coen brothers’ writing style and an emphasis on revenge derived from spaghetti westerns. But the film does suffer from unequal characterization of its antagonists; Sarah has a sweet and mean streak (significantly symbolized by her doll-like appearance and purple dress) but Josiah is an incredibly one-dimensional character, the personification of evil despite his preacher profession. Isaacs does a fantastic job making Josiah unlikable, but therein lies the rub: it’s irrational to believe he has no good side to him. All of the enemies in Sweetwater are developed in much the same way – irredeemably bad people – and the first rule of an interesting antagonist is to give him at least one less dastardly trait than the others.
It doesn’t affect the viewer’s enjoyment very much though, and Sweetwater is a darned good example that a great western can still be made. Strong characters and a carefully crafted plot build to a satisfying climax, and the memorable scenes make Sweetwater a rootin’ tootin’ time.
Thanks to ARC Entertainment for review screener.