Dead Man’s Walk

Starring: Keith Carradine, Harry Dean Stanton, Jonny Lee Miller, David Arquette, F. Murray Abraham, Edward James Olmos, Patricia Childress, Eric Schweig, Tim Blake Nelson, Ray McKinnon

Director: Yves Simoneau
Released: 1996

Mood: If you want a movie with a seriously amazing story and you can for sure handle a lot of death, or maybe you’re already in a wallowing state so watching characters you care deeply about die is fitting for how your life is going right now.

I wasn’t excited to watch Dead Man’s Walk

I had a library copy of the DVD sitting beside my TV for months. Literally MONTHS. I’d ordered it around the same time I got its predecessor, Lonesome Dove, which turned out to be a bit of a snooze-fest. Every time I picked up this movie, I saw the run time (4.5 hours) and David Arquette’s face on the cover and immediately put it down

A couple of days ago I actually looked at the rest of the cast and realized I was sleeping on a f*cking KEITH CARRADINE WESTERN! Commence kicking myself. Carradine is so goddamn good, I sometimes love him even more than Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck.

I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon and evening immersed in Dead Man’s Walk, and was on Amazon eagerly buying my own copy as the final credits rolled. 

The story gave me everything Lonesome Dove didn’t. It dragged me through every emotion, over and over again. I can’t even count the number of times my hands flew over my mouth in shock and horror. I ugly cried twice. 

I’m sure most Western fans will cry blasphemy. How dare I love this prequel, released seven years after the original that everyone thinks is so great? Who could possibly say this cast was stronger than the one led by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall?

This bitch right here. I think Dead Man’s Walk is f*cking awesome, and I’ll tell you why.

Dead Man's Walk dvd cover

Dead Man’s Walk takes place in 1840s Texas. Young Augustus “Gus” McCrae (David Arquette) and Woodrow Call (Jonny Lee Miller) are newly minted Texas Rangers, scouting a road between San Antonio and El Paso. 

Their party is ambushed by the fearsome Comanche Buffalo Hump (Eric Schweig), with two brutal killings and a haunting scalping scene. There’s more action in the first 20 minutes of Dead Man’s Walk than there was in the first two hours of Lonesome Dove. And it gives you a taste of what’s to come – author Larry McMurtry had zero issue with killing off his characters. 

The story jumps ahead a few months, to when McCrae and Call join up with a mission to annex Santa Fe from the Mexicans. This doomed party is led by the overly ambitious former pirate Caleb Cobb (F. Murray Abraham). 

Everything gets so intense after that, OMG. I always take notes when I’m planning to review a Western, but this was all I wrote during the last 3 hours of Dead Man’s Walk:

  • Well, part 2 is not for the squeamish… people just dying everywhere
  • Part 3 is SO F*CKING BLEAK

The expedition is hammered with challenges, from the harsh environment to the Natives picking them off. They barely make it to Santa Fe, and there they are taken prisoner. The remaining group is marched on the Jornada del Muerto, aka the “journey of the dead man” aka the dead man’s walk, across the desert to San Lazaro – a leper colony. 

WHAT? WHY?! This was the first time I’d seen lepers in a Western, and it hit me pretty hard. It added an extra layer of grim darkness, and the story was plenty dark by that point. I’m shuddering again just thinking about it. Let’s change the subject.

illustration of a fancy moustache

The expedition includes savvy scouts Bigfoot Wallace (Keith Carradine) and Shadrach (Harry Dean Stanton). Wallace’s character is loosely based on the real Texas Ranger, William A. A. “Bigfoot” Wallace

From their first scene, these two work brilliantly together and steal the show. Their faces should have been on the cover, because they are f*cking perfection. And because Keith Carradine looks damn fine with his moustache and ponytail. 

photo of Keith Carradine as Bigfoot Wallace
Source

Carradine’s Wallace is charismatic, with a sharp wit and intelligence. Stanton’s Shadrach is quiet and keenly observant, telling much of his story with subtle expressions. He has a soft sweetness that comes out around Matilda (Patricia Childress).  

F. Murray Abraham brings a boiling intensity to Caleb Cobb. It starts at low heat, where you think he might be a little crazy and impulsive… eventually bringing it up to peak crazy in his final scene. I loathed his character, but he did a great f*cking job of it. 

Another standout performance is Edward James Olmos as Captain Salazar. Even though he’s a ‘bad guy’ in the sense that he’s the one marching them across the desert, he’s got that quiet grace you expect from Olmos, and he’s super respectful. You can’t hate him.  

Childress’ performance as Matilda grew on me. When she alone walked out in the open during an ambush to rescue a scalped man, I realized the character would get to be more than the token female. She felt real, more so than Diane Lane in Lonesome Dove (more blasphemy!). 

I was the most concerned about David Arquette – the dude is ridiculous. Often in a good way (Ready to Rumble is hilarious), but not in a way that I associate with this kind of Western. 

The thing is, he did a pretty good job. His was the weakest performance, but the bar was set ridiculously high with this cast. He leans into his boyish immaturity, and the way McCrae was always needling everyone in Lonesome Dove, you just know he was a brat as a young man. The character in Dead Man’s Walk was written as kind of goofy and clumsy, and that’s what you get from Arquette. 

Jonny Lee Miller was another question mark. I liked him back in the day, in Trainspotting and Hackers, but again… could he do a Western? Yes. I enjoyed his totally humourless and socially awkward Call. 

There are tons of other notable performances, including Ray McKinnon, Tim Blake Nelson, and Eric Schweig as the viciously terrifying Buffalo Hump. The real Buffalo Hump did in fact lead 400 Comanches on the biggest Native raid on white cities in history.

illustration of a fancy moustache

That was a lot of words, but Dead Man’s Walk deserves as many words as it takes to convince you to watch it. I haven’t felt this excited about a Western in awhile. It’s got the powerful storytelling, the stark, sprawling landscapes, and a cast of talented actors bringing McMurtry’s tragedy to life (and death). 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to cheer myself up with more pictures of Keith Carradine’s moustache. 

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