Jonah Hex

I’ve said this about a few other movies, but it especially applies here: Jonah Hex may be the most bizarre film to open on almost 3,000 screens in this country in a very long while. Here is an anti-hero, the titular Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin), an ex-Confederate soldier with a scar that wrenches his face into a permanent sneer. Visually — at least in the comic books that inspired the movie — Jonah is even more hardcore than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, who at least could choose to sneer. The movie adds some supernatural stuff not in the comics: Jonah can bring dead men back to life for a few minutes to interrogate them. Only the idiosyncratic Warner Brothers would give us a wide-release summer movie that turns out to be an acid western.

Jonah Hex flies by; it has to, at just eighty minutes, including end credits. The consensus among my critical brothers and sisters is that the result is a choppy mess, but as a spaghetti-western fan I hooked into the gnarled, cynical mood of the piece. Post-war, Jonah is a bounty hunter with no particular use for the north or the south. He betrayed his regiment, led by the psychotic Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who murdered Jonah’s Indian wife and son in retaliation. Turnbull, it appears, faked his death and has been keeping busy wreaking havoc and developing some sort of proto-nuclear cannonballs. It’s 1876, so a lot of towns are celebrating the country’s first centennial and making themselves easy targets for Turnbull’s wrath.

In the comics, Jonah was a callous stranger, tough as jerky, who nonetheless had a soft spot for the oppressed. During the war, he reached a point where he couldn’t see the sense in risking his life so that some men could remain slaves. The movie touches lightly on this; the Crow Indians save Jonah’s life, and a black man provides Jonah with nifty new weapons. Jonah doesn’t have a lot of use for white men in general — which links the movie to some of the more political spaghetti westerns, like Sergio Corbucci’s Django. Jonah’s soft spot extends to a plucky saloon whore, Lilah (Megan Fox), perhaps the only woman who can look at him without flinching (she’s certainly the only woman in the movie with a speaking role, and the fake southern accent does Fox some good, takes her out of that breathy Valley Girl cadence she can easily fall into).

Brolin more or less puts across Jonah’s grudging heroism. When the movie goes for the usual summer kaboom, Brolin and everyone else get lost in it, but what mattered to me were the legitimately odd sequences in which Jonah talks to dead men or has trippy flashbacks or even hallucinations of himself fighting Turnbull. And the really painful revelation about Jonah’s scar isn’t that Turnbull inflicted it by branding his face — it’s that Jonah himself inflicted it trying to burn off the brand. Brolin wears all the pain heavily, but not so heavily as to weigh down the essential fun of watching a hard-ass gun down scoundrels in a western setting on the big screen. If you’ve seen a lot of that at the multiplex lately, I want to know which multiplex you’ve been going to. Whatever else it is or isn’t, Jonah Hex is utterly unique out there.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comic-book, western

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