Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
The Spaghetti Western genre has always been known for its violence. Sometimes it would be fair to say it has been notorious for it. And Sergio Corbucci has always been at the forefront in terms of pushing the boundaries of good taste in this area. In its time Corbucci's most famous film, Django, was banned because of its graphic ear cutting, whipping and wanton slaying of countless extras. Physical brutality, or the imminent and constant threat of it, is a regular ingredient in this genre and became as much a part of its make up as horses, big hats and Mexican peons. But never, to my knowledge, was there such an emotionally violent film made during the entire cycle as Sonny and Jed.
Sonny dreams of an exciting life as an outlaw and when notoriuous bandit Jed Tregado crosses her path in need of help she thinks her chance has come to make some money and change her life forever. Her life certainly is changed but not neccesarily for the better. Tregado proves himself to be every bit as mean as his reputation and by attaching herself to him Sonny embarks on a roller coaster journey of abuse, murder and mayhem where money is won and lost but her search for love is ever ongoing and ultimately futile.
Sonny and Jed despite its western trappings is the story of a disfunctional, co dependent relationship between two people who are plagued by their own base instincts, self loathing and deep desire to have and be something better. Sonny longs to be loved yet the man she chooses gives her nothing but abuse, both verbal and physical, from their first encounter. Jed lives by his own admission "like an animal"; caring for no one and taking what he wants when he wants it but, on occasion, he shows himself to capable of better sentiments despite himself. Together they expose both the best and the worst in each other but can never quite escape their own failings and weaknesses. This is not an easy film to watch. If you are hoping for some classic Corbucci action you will be largely disappointed as the gunfights and explosions are sporadic and appear only after long periods of bickering between the two protagonists. If you are hoping for a tale of love in adversity with a happy resolution you will be equally disappointed. The happy scenes (of which there are some) are far outweighed by the miserable and ugly ones and the unhealthy relationship between the two miserable individuals weighs as heavy on us as it does them. It is a gruelling ride for all concerned and that includes the viewer. I admit to being on the verge of switching it off on more than one occasion. But, ultimately, I was glad I stuck with it. It may not be a western tale in the conventional sense but it is a story worth telling. I know some people lose patience with the film as they become increasingly irritated by the abusive nature of Jed and the pathetic willingness of Sonny to be abused and I can understand that view. It is hard to warm to either character but, for me, it is this uncompromising nature of the characters which is the film's greatest strength. In stories such as these we always hope for some form of revelation on the part of the protagonists which will change their behaviour. Or, failing that, a nasty come uppance for the dominant, abusive partner. But, in reality, life is rarely that straight forward. Sonny constantly comes back to Jed. And in so doing she both encourages his abusive behaviour and is a constant reminder to him of his own weakness. At the same time she elicits moments of tenderness from him and reinforces her own inner sense that she is not worthy of anything better.
This is harrowing stuff and I believe works on an emotional level rarely attempted in any genre films, let alone a western. And its success is largely due to the strong performances of Tomas Milian and Susan George in the eponymous roles. Milian is the Marmite of actors. People tend to love him or hate him and this role will likely do nothing to change anyone's preset opinions. I believe he does a great job here, inhabiting Jed in true 'method' fashion but if you are prone to find his style annoying this one will probably only reinforce your dislike. Likewise with Susan George. In the 1970s she made a number of films where she portrayed unlikeable, petulant characters and for some she became synonymous with these features. Although Sonny I think is a little more sympathetic in nature she is not an easy character to feel great sympathy for either but here I think it is a great credit to her abilities as an actress that she carries off the role without compromise. It is also to her and Corbucci's credit that despite her obvious good looks she is never used here simply as eye candy. She gives a real performance and the film is all the better for it.
Sonny and Jed will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is a difficult film to like and it is certainly not a film I would recommend to anyone looking for a couple of hours of escapist fun. But it is a well made film and considering it was made at a time when Corbucci was seeming to lose his way it doesn't exhibit any of the sloppiness the great man was occasionally prone to. It benefits from some solid acting and an uncompromising approach. Just don't be fooled by Milian's beret. Companeros this most definitely is not.