Alternating between the cartoonish and the cruel, Sam Raimi’s caffeinated riff on the Spaghetti Western refuses the atonement offered by Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, capitalizing on the surging adrenaline of stylized violence and the sprightly, dizzying locomotion of the dolly zoom. Raimi excels at inserting absurdity into any genre, realizing the satiric potential of hyperbole and caricature, especially when functioning as symbols for human mortality and fallibility. His penchant for the mischievous and morbid lend a taut immediacy to the competition at the core of The Quick and the Dead, employing photographic grandiloquence as a manifestation of mankind’s belligerence and solipsism.
Embodying the archetypal, anonymous gunslinger, Sharon Stone broods quietly from beneath the brim of her Stetson, chomping the tip of a cigarillo as an obvious nod to her cinematic ancestors (see A Fistful of Dollars). The narrative carries as many knowing clichés as its protagonist, recycling a cinematic canon of the corrupt and courageous as fodder for a quick-draw tournament, rifling through dramatis personae with the misanthropic glee of a side-scrolling fighting game.
Though the setting bears a striking familiarity, Raimi’s color palette shades in the banal with the luridness of a nightmare, exploiting the terror of Stone’s dreams and the glowing pyres of El Día de los Muertos as a reflection of the quietus to come. The overabundance of technique even mirrors the ghastliness of bloodsport, utilizing the kinetic energy of projectiles to propel the camera forward with demonic force (see The Evil Dead) and fanned decks of cards to act as swift wipe transitions.
The fluidity and blocking of each shot is done at the service of a Rolodex of gunslingers and Dante Spinotti’s eye catalogs the dancing of pistols and donning of ceremonial garments like a fashion photographer, reinterpreting outlaw culture as pop art iconography. He even hones in on the spurs of Gene Hackman’s malevolent Herod in tight, fetishistic close-up, allowing the ghostly jangle of each boot to carry bad mojo on the breeze, branding evil with a subtle scarlet letter before it has a chance to wreak havoc.
Hackman’s performance is as chilling and artful as his introduction, ignoring an ostentatious attempt at biblical symbolism by realizing contemporary avarice and barbarism with each breath. His megalomania is only made more concrete by the lamentable cowering of his constituents, sustaining on the stolen garments of lifeless gunslingers and gambling on which desperado will give up the ghost next. This savagery, coupled with Raimi’s sanguine style, smacks of excess and cynicism, only to be validated by a late revelation that exposes an inherited history of violence, trickling downward from the inception of culture to the themes of modern art and entertainment.
The Quick and the Dead (TriStar Pictures, 1995)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Simon Moore
Photographed by Dante Spinotti