If you’re looking for a straight-up, John Wayne-Esque, shoot ‘em up Western with clearly defined bad guys and good guys, Tombstone Rashomon isn’t it. Director Alex Cox, whose other noteworthy projects have included Sid and Nancy and the cult classic Repo Man, isn’t one to stick with traditional film techniques, and his sometimes surreal cinematography and offbeat script have given us another piece destined to become another outstanding entry into the canon of cult classic cinema.
The movie tells the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral but in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon film. Kurosawa’s film, one of the greatest movies of all time, is the basis of what is now called the Rashomon effect, or the telling of a story from many different peoples’ perspectives, with each person’s story often being completely different. In Tombstone Rashomon, we see the famous gunfight being told from the perspectives of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Holliday’s common-law wife “Big Nose” Kate, Ike Clanton, Col. Hafford and Johnny Behan. The interviewers, who get the story from each character, are from the future – they go back in time to witness the gunfight, but arrive a day after, so they are left to interview the characters after the fact. We never see the interviewer or get the story of their time travel, rather, the story jumps right into the interviews, with the gunfight played out six different times, according to each character’s self-serving version of what they think happened. The female voice of the interviewer, very matter-of-fact and intentionally robotic, makes us wonder if she might be an android from the future. We’ll never know. But that is Cox’s style – to leave us guessing, and that’s part of what makes his movies to distinct.
Perhaps the most unusual and surreal version of the gunfight is that of Doc Holliday (played by Eric Schumacher), who arrives at the gunfight driving in an SUV sheriff’s car – not something you would expect in a movie portraying an event that happened in 1881. Cox also played up Kate’s broken English spoken in a Hungarian accent, and sometimes mixing up her pronouns and referring to Doc as “she.”
The off-the-wall elements like the unexplained time travel, Doc Holliday casually hopping into a big SUV instead of his horse, and the curious juxtaposition of a skyscraper and big neon sign in the Old West background is pure Alex Cox, and I would expect nothing less. Of course, the surreal components are all the more surreal as the film was shot in Old Tucson studios, a very realistic movie set often used in Western movies. Cox’s cinematography, besides bringing in these surreal juxtapositions, mimics the traditional Old Western with just the right type of music, with each character walking in slow motion towards the gunfight and of course, riding tall in the saddle on horses through the dust of the Arizona desert (at least, when Holliday isn’t driving an SUV).
The gunfight scenes – all six of them – are stunning, dramatic and you won’t get tired of seeing it replayed. The costuming is perfect for the period, with huge mustaches and big cowboy hats (or as Kate called them, “big cow hats”), perfect Western scenes of riding off into the sunset, and guzzling whiskey at the saloon.
It’s a very creative, mind-bending movie, difficult to put into any one category. Put your expectations aside, put on your big cow hat, and make some popcorn. Get ready to step outside of your movie comfort zone. This will be a fun ride.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.