A quick glance at Sam Raimi’s filmography shows a greater preoccupation with iconography than with originality. He’s retread the old “cabin in the woods” and “superhero origin” tropes three times over (four if you count Darkman), yet, Robert Frost be damned, it has made all the difference. Through Evil Dead and Spider-Man, Raimi has evaded the title of “hack” to become both an auteur and blockbuster filmmaker, which is no easy feat when you’ve made Spider-Man 3. He manages to inject adrenaline and humor into genres that would die of exhaustion under any other director’s hand. As for The Quick and the Dead, the Western genre has only benefited from the Raimi treatment.
The Quick and the Dead reminds us of familiar Western figures straight away: the blind shoeshine, the bumbling barkeep, the merciless sheriff, the one-eyed ex-convict, and a flamboyant assortment of gunslingers. Of course it wouldn’t be a Western without the nameless hero, and fortunately we have Sharon Stone to give us an emotional anchor as The Lady amid a grotesque cast of caricatures. She arrives in town to exact revenge on the sheriff for the murder of her father, but gets roped into a quick draw dueling competition before she can do the deed.
The competition kicks up old grudges and riles up new rivalries among the townspeople. It’s a simple plot device that perfectly sets up an examination of the politics that run the little one-road town. The structure of the single-elimination tournament inevitably repeats ad nauseam–the duelists face each other, the townspeople watch, tension builds, the clock strikes noon, someone gets shot, then comes back to life, then gets shot dead–and we’re never surprised by who wins the round. Nonetheless, our attention remains transfixed by a cast that would be as impressive today as it was in 1995, with the likes of Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and many more. At the eye of this dust storm is Hackman’s John Herod who snarls deliciously and abuses the town under the pretension of protecting it like a Mafia boss.
The real stars, though, are Sam Raimi and his camera. The flourishes he trademarked in Evil Dead are less chaotic and more controlled here. Wide angle closeups of eyes looking back and forth increase the anticipation and paranoia in the shootout sequences. Swish pans from Herod to his opponents, back to Herod, back to a holstered revolver, augment the feeling that someone could fire at just about any moment. Match cuts flow us in and out of The Lady’s flashback dreams. A deck of cards flaring across the screen acts as a scene transition. Raimi loves these little details that make this Western microcosm that much more detailed and iconic.
Raimi shows his true love for the genre in the details of this world of dirt, booze, and rotten teeth. The Quick and the Dead is not a parody any more than Evil Dead is. It’s not even as tongue-in-cheek as Django Unchained. Raimi distills his favorite genres into their strongest, most concentrated forms so that they’re instantly recognizable, yet more fun than we ever remembered, in a wacky fun-house mirror sort of way.
Critics gave the movie mixed reviews in ’95, and Raimi himself cringed at what he felt was his out-dated style. But I believe time has been kind to The Quick and the Dead (almost as kind as to its successful cast who’ve gone on to Django Unchained, Unforgiven, and 3:10 to Yuma). These ten years later we’ve seen the historically accurate and pensive Western in Costner’s Open Range and Eastwood’s Unforgiven. But the ones that achieve longevity are the ones that honor the time-tested imagery that keeps us coming back. Realism is great and all, but the best Westerns are made by Italians in Italy, for God’s sake. When the dust has settled, we’re not left ruminating on the particulars of The Lady’s back story. We’re thinking about that gorgeous shot of John Herod’s bow-legged shadow, stretching up the street, punctuated with a single circle of light where the bullet passed right through.