Directed by: Tanner Beard
Written by: Tanner Beard
Starring: Eric Balfour, Lou Taylor Pucci, Tanner Beard, Henry Thomas, Jenna Dewan, Summer Glau, Jamie Thomas King
The subtitle of The Legend of Hell’s Gate is “An American Conspiracy.” A conspiracy usually involves a large cast of characters and, in his feature debut, writer-director-star Tanner Beard draws upon local legends and has cast a legion of mid-level character actors to spin a small-scale oater epic with a proverbial cast of thousands. Beard should be commended for his ambition, but his reach far too often exceeds his grasp.
In 1876 West Texas, former thief turned railworker Jimmy (Beard) arrives in Dallas seeking his fortune and a cure for his toothache, which leads to an encounter with Doc Holliday (Jamie Thomas King) and his befriending of a local prostitute named Katherine (Jenna Dewan of The Playboy Club). Meanwhile, a posse of Confederate veterans turned bounty hunters is hired to capture an accused rapist named Champagne Charlie. One of the hunters is Will Edwards (Eric Balfour), who’s a bit reluctant about killing but needs the cash. Charlie just happens to be frequenting the same saloon as Jimmy when the hunters crash through, leaving Jimmy and Will penniless and on the run.
Jimmy and Will head to the town of Granbury, owned by the ruthless land baron J. H. Gordon (Glenn Morshower) and home to such characters as former actor turned bartender John St. Helens (Henry Thomas), local errand boy Kelly (Lou Taylor Pucci), and half-breed Indian girl Maggie Moon (Summer Glau). When St. Helens falls ill and isn’t expected to last through the night, he makes a confession to Morshower that Kelly happens to overhear, which will be easy to guess to those well versed in local legends...though the trailer rather irritatingly gives it away completely. Kelly’s discovery of this secret leads him to hook up with Jimmy and Will to pull off a robbery, but things, as they say, go wrong.
The first word that came to mind after I finished watching Hell’s Gate was “sprawl.” While Beard’s script is ostensibly built around the three outlaws at its center (Kelly, Jimmy and Will), it rambles on in many different directions, trying to incorporate apocrypha of the Old West with actual history, creating characters and plot lines that seem important but seem to meander and wander off on their own. The film’s opening prologue has virtually nothing to do with the plot except to set up why a certain ancillary character — who’s little more than a plot device — is where he is. The script hints at backstory that, frustratingly, is never followed up on; indeed, the deleted scenes on the DVD reveal entire chunks of plot that were cut. Obviously, the script was in desperate need of a co-writer, or at least a few more drafts.
Beard’s inexperience with writing a large script sadly also extends to his skill as a feature director. While he’s worked on several television series as director, the first third of the film is paced, blocked and staged quite sloppily. Nearly all the scenes in Dallas are poorly edited, and Beard has little skill for directing compelling actions sequences. In the second half, when the action moves to Granbury, he seems more sure with the camera, as if he finds the open range a more comfortable milieu — Hell's Gate was filmed in the Texas locations in which it's set, and Beard is able to pull off some beautiful shots of the wilderness.
The sloppiness of the script and direction might have been alleviated had the story possessed any interesting characters. Sadly, Will, Jimmy and Kelly are simply not compelling, or even likable. Part of the fault belongs with the actors. Now, I remember really liking Eric Balfour a decade ago in his breakout roles in 24 and Six Feet Under, but since then he’s pretty much become…Eric Balfour. Will Edwards, Milo Pressman, Duke Crocker — they all still feel like variants on the same guy. Pucci I’ve liked in other things (Thumbsucker, Girls), but he just comes off as weasely as Kelly. Beard, at least, shows some charisma and likability as Jimmy and is able to do a passable, non-cartoonish Irish accent very well. Being an actor, Beard is able to get some nice performances out of his supporting cast, particularly Morshower (whose Gordon is such a compelling prick, I wished the film was built a bit around him) and Dewan, but the film’s best acting belongs to Thomas; it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out St. Helens’ big secret, but there’s an aching sadness in the eyes of Thomas’ failed actor/drunkard, one that makes me wish the film had spent more time with him than it did. A warning to One Tree Hill fans who see James Lafferty's and Robert Buckley’s names above the title: Both of them only appear in the film long enough for "blink and miss" appearances and then, like many other characters, they disappear from the proceedings.
Tanner Beard was able to get together an impressive amount of resources and a large cast for The Legend of Hell’s Gate, but the finished product is a complete mess. It’s clear from this film that he has a deep love of the western genre and local legends, but perhaps he let his excitement and enthusiasm get the better of him. The Legend of Hell’s Gate is so packed with plot and character that it can’t seem to decide what to zero in on for a narrative — and what it eventually chooses is three anti-heroes who aren’t really worth spending time with. There are elements of promise to Beard, but much work needs to be done.