Directed by David Leeds in 1978, and co-written by Leeds and Richard Rothstein, Shoot The Sun Down takes place in the early 1830s as America as a nation is still expanding into the southwest. Here a strange quartet travels together on a three day journey to Santa Fe. The four travelers are from very different walks of life. We meet a man who we know as Scalphunter (Geoffrey Lewis) who makes his living slaughtering buffalo and selling their hides. He and a man named The Captain (Bo Bundin), so named because of his navel experience, are heading to Santa Fe to find gold. Along for the ride is The Woman From England (Margot Kidder) who once worked in her native land as a chambermaid but who now serves The Captain, penance for his bringing her to America where she hopes for better things but really just lives as a servant. Last but not least, we have a former military man called Mr. Rainbow (Christopher Walken) who, based on his past, is no fan whatsoever of the native people roaming the area.
As The Captain and his lust for gold drive the group onward, he and his men make it obvious that they're in this for the long haul while Mr. Rainbow seems to have his sights set not on the gold the rest hope to find but on The Woman From England. The Captain, however, is not going to ease up until he finds the supposed treasure of Montezuma and as he has a ‘document that makes her my chattel' it would seem he's keeping the Woman too. As their journey continues, tensions rise and things become increasing dangerous.
One of the more obscure films in Christopher Walken's filmography, this one finds him playing the lead in the picture and doing an excellent job of it at that. His character might not sound particularly tough but he's deadly with a knife and proves time and again that he's as tough if not tougher than any other man in the film. At the same time, Walken handles this in that interesting way that only he can, convincing with his sense of perpetual cool but also projecting an impressive sense of unpredictability and menace. Walken is so good in this, as a matter of fact, that his performance alone makes this worth seeing. Thankfully the movie has more to offer than that. Margot Kidder has an innocent beauty about her that works well, we can understand why Rainbow would be into her and likewise we can understand why The Captain would want to keep her around. She looks great here and does that part justice. Bundin is fine in his role too, but he pales in comparison to Geoffrey Lewis whose Captain is a domineering greedy bastard of a man who is interesting only in control and gold.
As far as the film's style goes, it's odd. We get long stretches of silence, lots of long distance shots of characters travelling. These moments sort of remind us of the gunslinger and his son travelling through the desert in El Topo but as artsy as this picture gets, it never heads that far into flat out surrealism the way that Jodorowsky's masterpiece does. These moments of calm before the storm contrast strongly with the scenes of violence that are scattered throughout the picture. Leeds uses the violence inherent in the story not gratuitously but for the sake of impact. The fights and shoot outs and knife work in the film are more than a little jarring in spots, but the movie is all the stronger for it. In this way, the movie definitely channels some of what Sergio Leone was doing in his ‘Man With No Name' trilogy, and in other ways it heralds back to some of Akira Kurosawa's samurai pictures. Violence happens quickly and sometimes without warning.
This is heavier on character development and interaction than it is on cowboys and Indians stereotypes. The movie is definitely a product of its time, that experimental vibe that made so much American cinema of the seventies as exciting and interesting as it was runs through this thick and deep. Leeds doesn't play towards stereotypes here, even if at first it seems like he's going to do nothing but. As the picture evolves into something more than a treasure hunt film, the movie heads into some decidedly dark territory but never feels ‘off' in doing so.
Making excellent use of some great desert locations and shot with a keen eye for composition, the film is set to an interesting score. A treat for the eyes and the ears, this is a picture that'll make you think as well. Those looking for a typical western need not apply but if you're able to appreciate some great acting, some trippy visuals and don't mind the deliberate pacing of the film, Shoot The Sun Down is a legitimate seventies cinematic obscurity ripe for rediscovery.
Shoot The Sun Down arrives on Blu-ray from Kino, framed at 2.35.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in a new transfer supervised by Leeds. Minor print damage is present throughout but the detail is definitely there. Colors look very good and skin tones seem lifelike and natural. There are no issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or any obvious noise reduction to note. Texture is pretty decent as well, and generally, print damage aside (it's more prominent in the first twenty minutes or so than in the rest of the movie but it is still there), the image quality is fairly strong. This is definitely a film-like transfer, and a pretty decent looking one at that.
The English language LPCM Mono track is likewise of decent quality even if it isn't the smoothest track you're ever going to hear. The score has good presence, the horns in the opening musical bit sound quite good, while dialogue remains pretty clear. There's a bit of hiss in a few spots but nothing that really takes away from the movie much at all, most won't likely notice it. Levels are properly balanced and all in all, this is decent enough.
Extras are slim but we do get an alternate opening title sequence (featuring music by Kinky Friedman), the film's original theatrical trailer and a still gallery as well as the requisite menus and chapter stops.
Shoot The Sun Down has been out of print for over three decades and as such, has faded into obscurity. And that's a shame. This is a well-acted film, an ambitious picture that tries to do something different while still remaining very much a western. It's an interesting mix of arthouse and action and while there are times where it does feel a bit slow, ultimately it's a very rewarding watch. Kino's Blu-ray release isn't stacked with extras but it does look and sound quite good and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.