Westerns these days are nearly as scarce as natural springs in Death Valley. So who could blame a parched lover of horse operas for throwing caution to the wind and taking a sip of “Sweetwater”?
Granted, “Sweetwater” — newly available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video and the like — is a movie with warning signs all over it. Outlandishly, the film stars “Mad Men” ice queen January Jones as an 1880s-era New Mexico hooker-turned-frontierswoman with an itchy trigger finger.
Since its premiere nine months ago at Sundance, where a junior critic deemed it one of the worst movies he’d ever seen at the festival, this hoary tale of Old West payback — co-written by Jones’ former beau, Noah Miller — has been known by at least two other titles. In the U.K., the film is ”Sweet Vengeance,” while in France, it’s “Sherif Jackson,” the latter referring to Ed Harris’ colorful character, a crusty renegade lawman in plaid pants and a periwinkle topcoat.
Amazingly, Jackson isn’t even the movie’s heavy. That distinction belongs to Josiah (Jason Isaacs), an alarmingly beefy clergyman and self-described prophet whose particular form of religion somehow justifies his pumping hot lead into anyone who dares to rub him the wrong way. The “holy” man’s latest victims include a pair of snaggletoothed brothers — played by Miller and his twin sibling Logan, who directed the movie — and (spoiler alert!) the heroine’s gentle hubby, Miguel (Eduardo Noriega).
Thus the stage is set for the widowed Sarah — an ace shooter, as it happens — to get even and then some. That she disrobes several times along the way is hardly the most implausible element of the Millers’ crude B-movie oater, wherein gratuitous nudity competes with graphic gun violence for horse laughs. The film’s final shootout in a sheep pen is positively filthy — good thing Sarah keeps her clothes on for that.
Also notable on VOD
Westerns with women packing heat haven’t often been as inconsequential as “Sweetwater.” Arguably the greatest distaff gunslinger in film history is Barbara Stanwyck’s Arizona rancher Jessica Drummond in “Forty Guns” (available on Netflix), directed in 1957 by the immortal Samuel Fuller and deemed the “essence of American action cinema” by Time Out London.
Certainly Stanwyck’s cattle queen is among the sassiest of “Westrogen” heroines. “May I feel it?” she asks Barry Sullivan’s U.S. marshal, gesturing to his gun. “It might go off in your face,” he warns. Her reply, swift as a six-shooter’s bullet: “I’ll take a chance.”
Strange as it seems, the ’50s were the heyday of Hollywood’s whip-smart frontier females. Unfortunately, 1952’s “Rancho Notorious,” with Fritz Lang directing Marlene Dietrich as a barroom belle-turned-Wild West den mother, hasn’t yet galloped to VOD. (Given the film’s ownership, we can expect it to pop up on the burgeoning Warner Archive Instant any day now.)
But Anthony Mann’s “The Furies” (1950), with Stanwyck again riding tall in the saddle, is available on Netflix in a sparkling edition from the Criterion Collection. And Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar” from 1954 is on YouTube and Google Play; with this camp classic, we get two trigger-happy ladies — Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge — for the price of one.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.