Sharon Stone once likened dating Dwight Yoakam to “eating a dirt sandwich.” Viewing the country singer-cum-actor’s directorial debut, it’s apparent that Stone was being too kind–after all, watching Yoakam’s film doesn’t mean spending any close, personal time with him, and the experience is like eating a s**t sandwich.
After making a surprisingly chilling force of evil in Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade,” Yoakam, who also co-wrote, makes a disastrous transition to lead status as Val Casey, the marshal of a small western town in the early 1900s. After his shady adoptive family, led by “brother” Taylor (Vince Vaughn, miraculously emerging with his dignity intact), blows in and out of town and leaves a number of dead bodies in their wake, the action picks up a year later with Val in another town, romancing a newly-arrived actress (Bridget Fonda, looking understandably distracted) who is passing through. Alas, anything resembling bliss for Val is short-lived, for his past demons–namely, that old gang–materializes once again.
The basic description of the script, co-written by Yoakam and Stan Bertheaud, sounds simple enough, but it doesn’t quite convey what a complete mess “South of Heaven, West of Hell” is. From a structural standpoint, the film has no logical flow, jumping to different locations in space and time with little explanation and less sense. Particularly baffling is what happens after the one-year time break: a strange, wacky interlude involving a government agent (Bud Cort) looking for Val in his old hometown–which points up another of the film’s basic problems: an unevenness in tone. Interminably earnest and dull scenes featuring the morose Yoakam jar against the over-the-top eccentricities that sometimes appear in the same scene, such as a sidekick who likes wearing dresses to the ridiculous sight of Thornton himself turning in a cameo in a long blond wig. This, in turn, underscores Yoakam’s basic problem: not knowing when to quit–that is, in terms of filmmaking, for his catatonic performance shows that he gave up on acting long before he stepped onto the set. Quirky would-be jokes wear out their welcome quickly; the tiresome revenge “drama” progresses so slowly that the film ends up running a torturous 139 minutes. The title may be a cutesy joke describing someplace close to hell, but make no mistake–this film is hell.