Released on the same day as eventual highest-grossing movie of 2010 Toy Story 3, the comic book adaptation Jonah Hex proved to be the little film that couldn't, as it burned brightly...well... burned softly...erm...sputtered briefly then was snuffed out by the fickle whims of the marketplace. It learned the hard way that people just aren't ready for a supernatural steampunk Western whose main character is horribly disfigured and can talk to the dead, and until the roulette wheel that is popular culture falls upon that particular niche as its new sensation, Jonah Hex's time is still some ways away.
Things I Learned From Movie X: Jonah Hex
By Edwin Davies
April 20, 2011
Yet, like the works of Franz Kafka, Jonah Hex may yet see its day in the sun as future generations discover it and marvel at its bold, unconventional approach to the basic tenets of film-making, characterization and storytelling. So, like Max Brod before me, I will keep this valuable work from the flames of obscurity and impart unto you the secrets of Jonah Hex.
See No Crappiness...
Starring past Oscar-nominee Josh Brolin and future Oscar-winner Megan Fox (Prove me wrong universe, prove me wrong. (Don't worry, everyone, this is a clever bluff on my part to taunt the universe into making sure that Megan Fox never, ever wins an Oscar. (And this disclaimer is my way of ensuring that, if the universe reads the first disclaimer and decides that it is going to give Megan Fox an Oscar after all, I can claim that it was a double-bluff and I knew she was going to win one all along. Stupid universe, bound by its own flawless logic. (Oh God, I can't remember which pair of parentheses I'm in anymore. Someone send Cobb to get me out!)))), Jonah Hex tells the story of the titular bounty hunter, a man who watches as John Malkovich - playing the part of "John Malkovich In A Silly Wig" - kills his whole family as revenge for Jonah, whilst part of a Confederate platoon commanded by Malkovich In A Silly Wig, betraying his compatriots and killing Malkovich In A Silly Wig's son because Jonah refused to go along with their plan to burn down a hospital. Way to be a team player, Hex! After being hideously disfigured by Malkovich In A Silly Wig and his creative use of a branding iron, Jonah sets his sights on revenge of his own, and is helped by Megan Fox's whore with a heart of gold.
At least, that's what it is supposedly about, but everything is shot to look so dark and murky that it is almost impossible to tell what is going on. Though many of the early scenes of the film - including a notably crazy sequence in which Jonah blows up a whole town using a horse with dual gatling guns placed on either side of its head - take place in the daylight, the plot requires Jonah to spend a lot of the later scenes sneaking into Malkovich In A Silly Wig's compounds and hideouts. Since he's not very good at that - to be fair to him, even Ethan Hunt would have problems conducting espionage if half his face was burnt off - fights ensue, most of which take place at night. Whenever these fights break out, they turn the film into a work of performance art in which the audience stares at a black, shimmering screen whilst an audio book of the comic plays in the background.
If I didn't think that this was a thrillingly innovative deconstruction of the over-reliance of contemporary cinema on mere visuals to tell stories, I'd almost think that director Jimmy Hayward, a former Pixar animator, was ashamed of his work on the film and wanted to hide as much of it as possible. This argument certainly seems to be buoyed by the closing credits, which appear as if lit by candlelight and, as such, are nearly impossible to read. Perhaps this is yet one further beguiling transgression on the part of Hayward, a total refutation of the auteur theory and the notion that directors, writers and producers can claim credit for the creation of a film, much like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme 95 manfesto? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, yes, that is definitely what he was trying to say with the end credits of Jonah Hex.
...Hear No Crappiness
When True Grit came out in December of last year, a common complaint about The Coen Brothers' Oscar-courting oater was that Jeff Bridges' take on Rooster Cogburn made the character too tough to understand. Whilst the slurring, mumbling Cogburn was a touch difficult to comprehend at times, combining as he did the cadence of a common barfly with the outmoded vernacular and rhythms of a lay preacher, Jonah Hex takes things to a whole new level since every character is saddled with a borderline incomprehensible accent or brogue. If the most easily understood character in a film is the guy who has an extra mouth scorched into the side of his face, then there will definitely be a language barrier that viewers must overcome to really get to grips with the material.
Again this could be construed as a conscious effort on the part of Hayward and his team to distract from the words (horrible, horrible words) being spoken by making them almost impossible to comprehend, as well as a way of exploiting the limited range of Future Oscar Winner Megan Fox (Come on Universe, just go ahead and try me! (Damn, still stuck here. Thanks a lot, Cobb!)) by saddling her with an accent (and low-cut corset) that makes sure no one will pay any attention to how flatly she delivers her lines. I, however, choose to believe that the film is merely reflecting the simple, historical fact that diction, like medical X-rays and plastic surgery, was only pioneered after World War I. It's just trying to teach us all a little something about that "other country" known as history, where people spoke funny and fired explosive balls of plasma out of giant, three-barrelled cannons.
It's like, whoa, dude. Seriously. You know?
One area of the film that came in for especially tough criticism was its visual language, which at times makes it unclear whether or not it is cutting between two events taking place at different times and places, or one event taking place at a single location. One glaring example of this is a scene in which Jonah stumbles upon Malkovich In a A Silly Wig's plans to blow up America or whatever, which is then intercut with Malkovich In A Silly Wig describing his plans, only to then reveal that, rather than taking place in the same location at different times, the scene is taking place at the same time and it's just that neither party seems to realize that the other is there.
Once more, I have to take issue with this overly simplistic reading. In both that scene and one at a later point in the narrative, in which Jonah's life-or-death final battle with Malkovich In A Silly Wig is shown both to be happening in the physical realm and in some sort of metaphysical dreamscape that the two share, the film displays its true intentions; that it is an examination of and expansion on the philosophical notion of solipsism, and that it is the latest entry in a discussion that stretches all the way back to René Descartes. In the film's decision to have the fight occur on two separate planes of existence simultaneously, whilst also intercutting images of Jonah's past for seemingly no discernible reason, it seeks to throw off the shackles of objectivism, instead approaching film as a purely subjective form in which the past, present and spiritual life of the central character are shown to exist simultaneously, rather than sequentially.
It's a bold, audacious move that was misinterpreted as incompetence, but in truth, to quote the Bard, the fault lies not in our stars (or film, whatever (Hey, I got out of those parentheses! (Or did I? BWAMMMMM))), dear Brutus, but in ourselves. Like A Square in Edwin Abbott's Flatland, we have encountered something that exists in a dimension our senses will not allow us to comprehend. Bucking the usual trend, Jonah Hex was not shot or converted into 3D, but that was because it has already transcended it, and is the first 4D film, one which combines time and space into a beautiful singularity. Oh, if only I were able to see the world as Jimmy Hayward, who is clearly some advanced trans-dimensional being sent to teach us, does. Curse my pathetic human senses!
I hear that you can appropriate that level of understanding by getting blazed and listening to "The Great Gig in the Sky" backwards, though.