Much like rock-&-roll and professional wrestling, the Acid Western is one of the few truly American art forms. It’s a deconstructionist approach to the highly stylised American-myth making of the Western, itself a deeply political genre, that was steeped in the counter-cultural of the 60s. Whilst it’s heavily influenced by European new wave cinema, and its most famous creator is Chilean-French, it’s fundamentally America looking at itself looking at itself, and that’s strange before you get to all the uneasy weirdness that gets poured on top. And given the amount of religious fervor in The Old West, it’s almost an inevitability that Robert Downey Sr – satirist, firebrand, and reputably terrible father – would make one that’s based on the life of Jesus.
The film starts with Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson) running a small frontier town, with him possibly being a stand-in for Pontius Pilate and the town being Jerusalem. Or, given that he’s got him own mother and a mariachi band in cages he could be the Devil and it could be Hell. Although that doesn’t explain the subplot of his ongoing constipation nor of why he keeps shooting his possibly gay son who keeps on resurrecting. What we can say is that the person dressed as a bedsheeted ghost is probably The Holy Spirit. Probably.
Elsewhere, the zoot-suited entertainer Jesse (Allan Arbus) literally parachutes into the story, and goes around doing a couple of choice miracles. He also tell the parable of Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana, because everything in this movie needs to feel like a Captain Beefheart album. He’s trying to make his way to Jerusalem, which could possible be the actual Jerusalem or a small town or maybe the afterlife, and he ends up at Greaser’s Palace. Then there is a song and a dance number, because life’s a show?
Alongside is a story about a woman burying her husband and son who were killed by Native Americans*, and who go through an unrelenting stream of pain and torment before meeting the main plot and the Crucifixion happens. She’s… nope, no idea. She just gets brutalised a lot, which could come across as misogynistic if it wasn’t for the fact that she is clearly supposed to represent something. The film lets you fill in the gaps on that because it assumes you have a mind of your own and are happy to invent your own ideas as to what’s happening.
The film also assumes that you don’t mind long sequences where not much happens and uses the technique a heck of a lot. It’s consistently done, so it’s clearly not padding, and it becomes part of the movie’s tempo as well as its character. Not everyone will like this, but you’ll have turned the movie off because of other things way before that becomes an issue. It’s just interesting to see a film use tedium as a storytelling technique and to have a director who’s so clearly focused on the message give the cast that much spare time to do their own thing and let chaotic forces control what people will see and then have to interpret.
If you can handle such nonsense and almost Dadaistic abstraction, then there is a lot to be said about this film. Within the context of what’s its trying to achieve the performances are magnificent and there are some genuinely hilarious moments, especially Allan Arbus’s perfectly executed tap-dancing on water. People play their roles straight, having a naturalist edge to them that makes the peculiar believably mundane, and not an inch is given to tell you what you’re supposed to be thinking. It also has fantastic costumes, simple but evocative sets, and a diegetic soundtrack that capitalises on the quietness of the wilderness to add to the sense of void.
If you can’t handle such nonsense and almost Dadaistic abstraction, then it’s a bunch of pretentious bullshit that is saying far less then it thinks it is. There’s nothing middle-ground to this film, you either have to like not knowing what’s going on and enjoy having the sights and sounds wash over you or you’ll have to find something else to watch.
I thought it was an absolute Treasure of a film. It had too much of a sense of fun to become pretentious, and it’s mischievous nature and multilayering means you can swap theories with friends and none of you can be wrong. It’s all about the journey, because it has no destination other than the wild ideas and connections you met along the way. Not everyone can be arsed with such a trip, and that’s fully understandable, but if you want something very different then it’s waiting for you to experience.
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*There is a whole other subplot with Native Americans, in cliche “Indians” mode with some magnificent twists. But… yeah, “it was the 70s…”