Dawn Rider

Starring: Christian Slater, Donald Sutherland, Jill Hennesssy, Lochlyn Munro

Director: Scott Martin
Released: 2012

Mood: If every now and then you find yourself thinking “whatever happened to Christian Slater?”.

I watched Dawn Rider because Amazon told me to. For real. It kept getting recommended because of my shopping habits, but I wasn’t sure if it was worth buying. 

I mean, I liked Young Guns II. But now that I’m an adult, I can admit that the only reason I tolerated Christian Slater in Young Guns II is because I had a crush on Christian Slater

My celeb crushes are more random than Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – they include “Weird Al” Yankovic, Christopher Sarandon, PeeWee Herman, Dave Foley, and ‘80s wrestler Jake The Snake Roberts. So my fascination with someone doesn’t mean they can carry a Western (although now I REALLY want to see a Western with that cast).  

Anyway, I ordered the Dawn Rider DVD from the library. That’s a thing you can do. It’s based on the 1935 John Wayne film The Dawn Rider, which I haven’t seen because the library doesn’t have it and also I’m not super into John Wayne (gasp!). 

If, like me, you frequently find yourself distracted from writing data reports because you’re wondering what Christian Slater is up to, this is it – and it’s surprisingly good.  

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Dawn Rider opens with John Mason (Slater) taking a piss, wandering into a cabin in the woods, chugging from a bottle (he does that a LOT in this movie), and flopping down to relax. But within seconds Cochrane (Donald Sutherland) rides up with two other guys, who proceed to shoot the shit out of the little house. 

Cochrane says, “I did not tell you to use your weapons”, in that wheezy-yet-somehow-refined Donald Sutherland voice, and we learn that he gets a $500 bonus for bringing Mason in alive. 

Cut to Sasparilla, Wyoming. A mounted gang of pillowcase-wearing men that look eerily like a hate group (they’re not) gun down a sheriff and gallop away with stolen bags. They meet up with their boss (Lochlyn Munro) in a barn, and he turns livid because it’s all mail and no money. I was thinking, if you wanted money, why didn’t you rob a bank like literally every other bandit in the Old West?

Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense soon.

Now we zip over to a saloon in Grey Falls, Montana, and a tense game of poker. Mason steps in to point out a cheater by a couple of cards under the table. Mason gets identified as ‘Cincinnati John Mason’, and he says “I ain’t never been to Cincinnati”. 

That line can be the Dawn Rider drinking game, if you pick something good and strong. I suggest Kentucky bourbon from a flask, as a nod to Cochrane. 

In a flurry of scenes that build up the key plot points, Mason meets up with the non-cheater of the poker game and learns of his romantic yearnings for a special woman, returns to his family home and gets punched out by his dad (but then gets drunk with him), and runs into a woman named Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy) from his youth. 

Alice and Mason’s reunion is reminiscent of Jesse James and Zee in American Outlaws, complete with an awkward “you’re all done growing” comment from Mason. But really, what Western hasn’t begged, borrowed, or stolen from another?

Is Dawn Rider an exceptional piece of work? No. But it hooked me well enough, and kept me engaged with action, plot twists, family drama, a love triangle, and plenty of shooting. The final showdown even manages to work in one last twist, going beyond a straight-up shootout.  

Christian Slater has finally achieved the right level of scruffy jadedness for this kind of role. He’s got that gleaming, hawk-like gaze that suits squinting at the frontier. I’m not saying he’s anywhere close to Tom Selleck or Sam Elliott, but if he could stop acting like a dick offscreen and stay out of jail, Westerns would be a good place for him.  

Sutherland gets top billing despite being in just a handful of scenes, but that’s because he’s Donald F*cking Sutherland. He’s the commanding force in each and every one of those scenes – big and wooly, yet elegant, always smiling to himself, making you lean forward to hang off his every word. 

Jill Hennessy gave me something new that I appreciated. I’ve never seen any of her TV stints, so this was my first introduction to her as an actor. She delivered this hardened, no-nonsense woman who had obviously seen a lot of shit in her day, and had no patience for any more. 

Hennessy’s Alice is WAY more forward than we’ve come to expect from the Western female archetype who isn’t a sex worker or Sharon Stone. Alice has guns everywhere, both on her person and stashed away. She’s probably the most sensibly protected person in the movie. She draws on men in public, drinks with them in bars, and doesn’t hesitate to climb on top of them and start furious makeout sessions if that’s what she wants. 

At first I thought, hmm, a woman of her station wouldn’t have really acted like that. But it’s actually really f*cking great because if there are all kinds of women now, obviously there were all kinds of women back then – not just the few types we get from Western movies and books. Of course there were strong, radical women who also happened to stay at home and take care of their families. Plus, the small settlements did tend to have looser morals.

Dawn Rider is a solid modern Western, and worth watching. And that’s not just me and my weird taste – 40% of people who bought it off Amazon gave it 5 stars, and another 41% gave it 4 stars. Hence me taking its recco, and hunting down a copy.

Is the moral of the story that Amazon knows best? That’s a scary thought.

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