Throughout both written and oral history, there have been countless tales that warn of the dangers of entering the forest, and Buckskin is another one. Writer-director Brett Bentman’s enormously intriguing Western succeeds for the most part in spinning a web of madness around this timeworn trope, anchored by a truly dedicated performance by lead Tom Zembrod.
Porter (Zembrod) is a retired fur trapper turned cook who is talked into performing one last job by his former boss, Captain Kevin Coleman (Robert Keith). Coleman engages Porter to trek into the feared Buckskin Woods to find his grandson, Levi (Blaze Freeman). Levi is presumed to be the lone survivor of a brutal attack by the indigenous tribe that populates the forest and left 17 of Levi’s comrades dead. In exchange for his troubles, there’s a crisp one hundred dollars in it for Porter, a hefty sum for the time (the 1800s, by the look of things).
Porter and his wife, Cora (Tiffany McDonald), have their reservations about Coleman’s proposal. The last time Porter ventured into the woods, a similar massacre ensued. Then, as Porter stumbled exhaustedly out of the forest, he was informed that a fever had swept through his hometown of Fort Kingston and claimed the lives of his two young children. Before embarking on this new journey, however, Cora insists that Porter visit a local fortune teller (Giovannie Cruz) as a measure of providing her some level of comfort in anticipating his return.
I won’t say more about the plot; only that history has a funny way of repeating itself once Porter enters the Buckskin Woods.
“Coleman engages Porter to trek into the feared Buckskin Woods to find his grandson…”
Buckskin wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is without the galvanizing central performance by Tom Zembrod. Here is a man who looks as though he has ventured one too many times into the wilderness, only to return more grizzled than when he initially set out. Zembrod possesses a defeated yet determined hardness that informs every inch of his character. Blood appears to be permanently caked on his face, and he speaks with the raspy, exasperated tone of someone who has made warning after warning to folks who just don’t heed them. There is a wonderful scene towards the end in which Porter, bathed in the amber glow of a campfire, relays his sad story with the tortured reminiscence of a man who has experienced enough pain and anguish to last a dozen lifetimes.
Aside from Zembrod, the cast delivers performances that are good but never rise to his level of magnetism. For one thing, almost every actor other than Zembrod affects a modern sensibility and intonation in their performances that betray the supposed era the second they open their mouths. It’s a small distraction, though, from a movie that is, on the whole, quite enthralling.
Director Bentman uses his Texas locations to wonderful effect in some gorgeous widescreen shots that marvelously evoke Fort Kingston and the barren and desolate frontier landscapes. Bentman’s exploration of this rural backdrop and the several sequences of Porter wandering in the woods nicely underscore his lone mission and complement what is the possible fracturing of his sanity.
Bentman could have excised the final one or two shots in the film, ending just a hair earlier. This might seem petty or marginal, but in this instance, removing them would have resulted in a much more haunting picture. Nevertheless, Buckskin is a solidly entertaining story of a man compelled to go on a mission he didn’t want to take and maybe shouldn’t have.
"…a truly dedicated performance by lead Tom Zembrod."