Jonah Hex (2010): a recap (part 1)
As a non-comics reader, I’m in something of an awkward position when I watch a movie adapted from a comic book and don’t like it. Part of me thinks that it’s unfair to judge it by my normal standards, because the movie wasn’t made for me. I don’t know anything about the title character. I have no idea how a typical one of these stories goes. I don’t have any preexisting emotional investment in anything that’s happening. The movie and I are playing different games.
Another part of me asks what the point of a comic book adaptation is, if not to make the original source material more accessible to a larger audience. After all, these movies wouldn’t make quite so many semi-trailers full of cash if only comics readers saw them. Is it too much to ask that a cinematic work stand on its own without any required reading? Maybe the non-initiated like me are exactly who this movie is (or should be) made for, in which case my negative impression should be wholly justified.
A third part questions the wisdom of expending so much mental energy analyzing stories about primary-colored übermenschen giving each other hematomas. A fourth wonders if that’s snobbish. A fifth usually wants Thai food. I’m a complicated man.
It’s a puzzling question and one that I’m extremely relieved I didn’t have to ask myself after seeing Jonah Hex. For Jonah Hex clearly wasn’t made for anybody. In a world that’s given us Green Lantern, Catwoman, and Superman Returns, it’s Jonah Hex that will forever be the true measure of DC’s prodigious capacity for miscalculation. Overlong at 72 minutes, incoherent, aimless, boring, full of tired characters tumbling through a Plinko board of inane story beats, Jonah Hex stubbornly defies any attempt to rationalize its badness. I simply can’t imagine anyone involved in Jonah Hex having any serious intention of doing the character justice, any more than I can imagine that Jonah Hex has enough fans to justify the attempt. But Jonah Hex‘s lack of faith in itself as a comic book movie is matched in scope by its inability to be anything else. Trying desperately to appeal to somebody, Jonah Hex gathers up stale scraps of Western, fantasy, Gothic, steampunk, and half a dozen other genres, and cooks them up into a tepid, watery stew of overworked metaphors and sadness. No one asked for Jonah Hex. No one was excited to make Jonah Hex. And no one is better off that Jonah Hex exists.
The movie opens cold on our eponymous hero, played by Josh Brolin putting on a cowboy drawl for a spell of narratin’: “War and me took to each other real well,” he grumbles. “It felt like it had meaning. The feeling of doing what you thought was right. But it wasn’t.” Right away, the English major in me wants to uncap my red pen and scribble edit for clarity. The feeling wasn’t right? War wasn’t right? The meaning wasn’t the feeling?
The narration occurs over a series of action sequences that presumably have something to do with one another. Hex is fighting for the Confederates and he’s just killing the shit out of a bunch of Yankees, but it’d be unfair to hold that against him. I’ve been assured recently that there were good people on both sides.
“Folks can believe whatever they like,” Hex assures us, “but eventually a man’s got to decide if he wants to do what’s right.” Folks can believe… that a man doesn’t have to decide if he wants to do what’s right? What is right here, exactly? This goddamn narration is borderline aphasic. If I didn’t speak fluent Cliché, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
A Confederate encampment gets captured by the Union, who hold the soldiers at gunpoint. Hex appears in close-up and looks uncomfortable.
Is Hex captured as well? Did he orchestrate the capture? Did he surrender? Does it matter which? It’s an exciting mystery!
Then a bunch of bedraggled Rebs, some injured, who may or may not be the same ones we just saw get captured, limp dejectedly through a forest. A William Elliott Whitmore album cover caps off the montage.
This montage is confusing, and doesn’t actually bring you up to speed on anything you need to know, which is really the only reason you would start a movie with a montage. That Hex got disenchanted with whatever, and did a treason, is about as much as we can guess. An actual scene or two would’ve served us much better. It’s not like they were hurting for runtime. This movie is 81 minutes long, including credits. That’s insane.
The sequence dissolves to Hex tied to a crossbeam like Cowboy Jesus.
His old CO, General Quentin Turnbull, has found him and his family. He’s played by John Malkovich, a man who pisses concentrated villainy, yet here he’s struggling to deliver his lines with more malice than would befit a messed-up lunch order.
Michael Fassbender is also here, covered in stupid-looking tattoos that are more extensive and detailed than would exist on anybody in the 1860s.
This scene’s too dull to recount in full; just imagine something written by a screenwriting robot with its dial set to “Your Quarrel’s With Me, Leave My Family Out Of This!” The big takeaway is that Turnbull believes Hex sold out his unit to the Yanks and murdered Turnbull’s son in the process. If true, this seems like the kind of thing we should’ve seen in the montage. Is it? There’s no way to know, and no reason to care.
BowlerHat McTribalFace puts Hex’s unseen wife and son in the oven for an hour at 425 degrees, and Hex is given a time out to think about what he did. But to round out this Tragic Backstory, Turnbull heats up a cattle brand in Hex’s burning house, and says Hex is to go free with a mark upon his flesh, blah blah, never forget, etc.
And hooray! here’s more narration from a dude who isn’t clear on how words and sentences fit together. “I hung on that cross for days,” says Hex. Wait, no. The scary man said about twenty seconds ago that he was going to let you go free, Hex. Did he change his mind? Was that in the montage, too?
Speaking of montages, here’s another one! This one’s animated, to boot, at least if you play fast and loose with the definition of the word. The camera zooms and wobbles around a bunch of mostly stationary cartoon images, like those god-awful “motion comics” my idiot friends are always trying to get me to watch when they know I don’t even read comics. Still, at least it’s colorful. It gives hope that you’ll periodically have something to look at through this slog. (But you won’t. This is the only “animated” sequence in the movie.)
“By the time the Crow Indians found me, I was nearly dead. The medicine men did what they could to bring me back, but somehow they just couldn’t get me all the way out.” So they couldn’t get you all the way out of… being nearly dead? What would you even call that state? Partially mostly dead?
Brolin seems to have recorded all his voiceovers in one session, because he’s losing energy by the sentence. Either that, or the high-grade opiates that were clearly rampant on the set of Jonah Hex are kicking in. And just as he’s about to explain all of his special powers, too. Hurry up, get it out before you nod off.
“It didn’t make me immortal,” he huffs, as a normal person does. “Just gave me the curse of knowin’ the other side.” Uh huh. And that means what, exactly?
“See, talkin’ to dead folks ain’t natural. But some times they’re the only ones who point the way.” Okay, I presume from that, that Jonah can talk to the dead. That’s promising. Care to elaborate? Any special rules or restrictions? No? Oh well, better than nothing.
Where the score during the previous montage was bargain-bin Morricone, by this montage they’ve switched the music to a chugging, mid-tempo guitar riff in a style I like to call “Hollywood metal”. Something in the drum pattern rings a bell for me here, and so I took to Wikipedia. Confirmed: the score for Jonah Hex was composed and performed by none other than mainstream-breaking grandfathers of the Georgia progressive sludge metal scene, Mastodon.
If you’re not a metal fan, the phrase “Georgia progressive sludge metal scene” probably sounds like a joke; I assure you it’s a real thing. If you are a metal fan, you might have noticed that sometime between 2009’s Crack the Skye and 2011’s The Hunter, Mastodon started (for lack of a better phrase) sucking shit. The ambitious compositions, shifting textures, and rhythmic technicality that had characterized their early work all disappeared overnight. It was as if something caused them to just give up. When did Jonah Hex come out? 2010? Interesting…
“I searched this land high and low huntin’ old Turnbull down. Then that old bastard played one last trick on me and died in a hotel fire.” GOSH, THAT SURE SUCKS, GUESS YOU’LL NEVER GET YOUR REVENGE AND COMPLETE YOUR CHARACTER ARC, MISTER HEX. I hope I don’t break too many readers’ hearts when I reveal he’s not really dead.
Yes, they actually labeled the hotel “Hotel” like it’s a fucking cartoon, and they put Turnbull in the window, sitting calmly while the building burns, just to make extra sure we know what’s going on. It figures that the one plot point the movie’s adequately explained so far is an obvious and unnecessary red herring.
“I had nowhere to go, and a heart full of vengeance. I did what come naturally and turned to bounty hunting.” Here’s an interesting thought exercise: at what point does it become criminally negligent for Hollywood to make bounty hunting look cool? I ask because of incidents like this:
I guarantee you those trigger-happy dum-dums signed up to be bounty hunters in the first place because some movie like Jonah Hex prodded them into it. How many more people have to die before Hollywood’s social con$cience kicks in? I kinda feel like bounty hunting shouldn’t be legal, anyway. If someone’s that committed to skipping bail, let them go. They’ve earned it.
So how long into the movie are we now? An hour? Is it going to be over soon?
That’s it for part 1. Tune in next time to see improbable explosions, Jonah riding a magic horse, and a highlight reel of terrible facial hair decisions.