Friday, August 08, 2008

Action Girls: The Women of Lonesome Dove, Part Two – Clara Forsythe

Like David Arquette before him in Dead Man’s Walk, Steve Zahn looks like he’s imitating Robert Duvall in Comanche Moon more than he is acting. But he does such a good job of it that you don’t care.

And like Jonny Lee Miller, Karl Urban doesn’t try to imitate Tommy Lee Jones, but just plays the character. It feels like Urban’s got a lot more to work with than Miller did though. I don’t know how much time is supposed to have lapsed between the two mini-series, but Urban’s Woodrow Call is a lot more grim than Miller’s was. Some of that is undoubtedly Urban’s natural broodiness versus Miller’s gentler appearance. Miller did a fine job, but let’s face it: Urban is perfect for the role.

The story is more interesting than Dead Man’s Walk, but it still tends to ramble. The first two acts are mostly about the capture and rescue of Captain Scull (Val Kilmer), who leads the Rangers. Before his capture though, we see a lot of the Rangers coming and going in and out of Austin, much like they did in Dead Man’s Walk. Gus and Clara (played this time by Linda Cardellini, aka Velma from the live-action Scooby Doo movies) are still in love, but are also still struggling to commit to each other. Gus’ job takes him away from Clara far too often for her liking and she’s not going to marry him until he can quit Rangering and settle down. Which he won’t do.

Buffalo Hump, the villain from Dead Man’s Walk, is played by Wes Studi this time and is a lot more settled down. Apart from one notable exception, he pretty much stays in camp and criticizes his son Blue Duck, who’s the real troublemaker of the mini-series. So, we mostly get a lot of slice-of-life episodes of Ranger life, punctuated by important events like Scull’s capture at the hands of an old enemy and the Rangers’ attempts to first ransom him, and when that fails, rescue him.

During the ransoming attempt, the Rangers go down to a little town on the Rio Grande called Lonesome Dove where a wealthy rancher has set up shop. They try to persuade the rancher to donate cattle for the ransom, but he refuses. It’s a fruitless side-trip meant only to get Gus and Call to Lonesome Dove so they can talk about maybe retiring there one day. The mini-series is full of that kind of stuff: meandering side-trips that don’t progress the story, but are only there to hit particular beats and move the characters closer to where they’re supposed to be in Lonesome Dove.

That’s not to say it's boring though. The production values of Comanche Moon are a lot more engaging than Dead Man’s Walk was. I don’t know if it’s the use of music or the camera angles or a lot of stuff mixed together, but I stayed entertained throughout Comanche Moon and that’s something that I can’t say about its predecessor.

Val Kilmer, for example, absolutely immerses himself in the role of Captain Scull. Scull is a charismatic leader who uses a combination of humor and spunk to prevail in the harsh, Texas wilderness. He’s as much fun to watch as Gus and Call.

Also fun is Scull’s vain, horny wife Inez who loves having so many of her husband’s handsome, young Rangers living nearby. She’s fun because we hate her, but she’s still fun.

Much less fun is her conquest at the beginning of the story, a young Ranger named Jake Spoon. Jake’s easily manipulated and has terrible judgment. This will, of course, make him much more interesting when he’s given some power (and charisma) and played by Robert Urich in Lonesome Dove, but here – at least starting out – he’s just a pawn in Inez’s game. He does one, attention-grabbing thing the entire mini-series and that’s to hit a prostitute. But as soon as he’s done it he pretty much quits being a player in the story. He’s still around, but he fades into the background. I’ll explain.

The prostitute he hits is the girl Call exchanges looks with at the end of Dead Man’s Walk. Her name is Maggie Tilton, which is really unfortunate because it sounds so similar to Matty, the prostitute in Call’s life during most of the first mini-series. In fact, with so much recasting being done between the two mini-series, it took me a while to figure out that Maggie and Matty were two separate characters. And even then it was because someone finally mentioned that Matty had moved further West and was doing pretty good for herself.

It’s too bad because I like Matty a lot more than Maggie. We don’t learn much about Maggie other than that she’s a prostitute and that she seems to have a crush on Call. He seems to like her too, but he’s careful about it and obviously doesn’t see a future for the two of them. You never get a real clear understanding of why. She's sweet as can be, she's beautiful, and she obviously dotes on Call. There's a lot to like about her.

By the time Jake hits Maggie, it’s obvious that things are going nowhere for her with Call, so she ends up letting Jake stick around. I sort of hated her for that, but she makes a convincing argument at one point that she needs a man around and she’d rather have Jake than no one. She’s no Action Girl, that Maggie. She’s a good woman, and supportive of her friends, but dang I hate that she let Jake stay.

Jake’s presence in Maggie’s life keeps him in the story after that, but just barely. It’s more the idea of him that makes him important than it is anything he does. When Maggie becomes pregnant, she claims that Call is the father, but Call doesn’t believe her. The baby could very well be Jake’s. Maggie insists that it’s Call’s, but really, we don’t have any more reason to believe her than Call does. We’re supposed to accept that “a woman knows these things.” In Lonesome Dove, everyone believes the baby is Call’s except for Call. I don’t know how that happened from the flimsy evidence presented in Comanche Moon.

There’s other stuff that doesn’t match up between Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove too. Lonesome Dove describes Maggie as spending her days watching a saloon door waiting for Call. In Comanche Moon, Maggie works out of her house, not a saloon. In fact, she doesn’t set foot in a saloon at all during the entire mini-series. Lonesome Dove also says that Maggie dies in the town of Lonesome Dove, not Austin as she does in Comanche Moon. Sloppy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The last third of Comanche Moon takes place seven years after the first two thirds. That’s to give Maggie’s son Newt time to grow up enough that he can become a sort of mascot to the Rangers. There’s not much more reason for it than that. Like I said before, they’re obviously just hitting the beats and showing the important pieces of the backstory.

We hear that Jake’s real good to Newt and Maggie, but we never see it. Jake’s pretty much been written out of the story by now. He’s just another excuse for Call to stay distant from Maggie. Call does try to get close a couple of times, but his refusal to accept Newt as his son gets in the way and Maggie eventually breaks things off with him. Another major difference from the way Lonesome Dove suggests things happened.

And then there’s Clara. In Lonesome Dove we’re told that Clara and Gus never got their act together because they couldn’t commit to each other, and that’s mostly how it was portrayed in Dead Man’s Walk. But in Comanche Moon, it’s obvious for a while that they love each other so much that eventually they will commit and get married. It takes the meddling of Inez Scull – who wants Gus for herself, at least for a while – to break them up for good. While Clara’s out of town, Inez tells Gus that Clara’s married another suitor, a young rancher named Bob Allen. That emotionally frees Gus to start sleeping with Inez and when Clara finds out about it, that ends things.

It’s lame because Gus never questions Inez’s story. He knows her to be manipulative, but he just sort of takes her word for it and jumps into bed (although grieving over Clara while he’s at it).

Clara comes out looking pretty good though. Her parents die during Comanche Moon and she bravely takes over their business. Unlike Maggie with Jake, Clara hooks up with Bob Allen (and eventually does marry him) because he genuinely loves her and she sees that she could be happy with him in ways that she can’t with Gus. Especially since Gus is so stupid and gullible (something that he definitely was not in Lonesome Dove). We never feel like Clara needs a man, but she’d definitely be happier with one and Bob’s a good guy.

I liked Clara a lot in Comanche Moon. You can see elements of both the capricious girl from Dead Man’s Walk and the unwavering frontier woman of Lonesome Dove. That’s hard to pull off, but they sure did it. Comanche Moon has a lot of problems, but it succeeds in two things: being entertaining and moving Clara’s story forward. I finished Comanche Moon eager to see more of her.

Three out of five snake-eating madmen.

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