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The Wicked Wicked West (1998)

by on 2011/06/19

“Still in business I see?”

* * *

A saloon piano plays. Cowboys enjoy a fist fight after crooked game of cards. Then these whiskey-swilling, punch-happy cowpokes grab a lively working gal and take her upstairs. The brothel door slams.

This is the way with most westerns, you don’t get much further than that slamming brothel door.

The Wicked Wicked West, starring Kelly McGillis (Witness) and Brenda Fricker (So I Married An Axe Murderer), invites you over the threshold and inside.

It used to be that women had but a few rather precarious and crummy options in life. They could marry and let a man pay their way. Or they could making a living in domestic service, cleaning homes for others. Or they could make a living on their backs.

Or a little bit from columns A, B and C.

Blessed be to Christopher Hitchens, we females have a few more options these days.

If you are like me, you forget how lucky we as women are. We live in a society with few barriers to earn a living wage at any profession we choose. We have access to education, the vote, some reasonable measure of reproductive rights. We have options outside of cooking, procreation and cleaning.

It wasn’t always thus.

Directed by Jon Sanders, The Wicked Wicked West, alternately titled Painted Angels, is a grim little reminder of the bad old days gone by.

And by grim, I do mean grim. Grey, dingy, colourless rooms. Huge swathes of silence. Haggard, defeated faces. Illness, violence, death. This is the world of the characters that inhabit Madam Annie Ryan’s bordello.

Kelly McGillis plays the chain-smoking, pragmatic Nettie who works to support her drunkard husband and young son. She also earns a meager income on the side as an abortionist for other working girls. Fricker is the tough-as-nails, ruthless former prostitute turned madam.

There’s Eileen (Bronagh Gallagher), an Irish immigrant, who lost her whole family in her quest for a new life in the “new world.” Ada (Anna Mottram) is becoming too old and used-up to earn a living. Newcomer Katya (Meret Becker) is a red-haired German who dabbles in clairvoyance and survived starving to death on the boat ride over to America by convincing other passengers she was a witch. Then there’s the irritating upstart Georgie (Lisa Jakub) whose youthful arrogance adds the occasional frisson to the otherwise lifeless scenes in the brothel.

Together this dysfunctional family plays out an mostly interior drama that is jarring, disjointed and at times, just plain confusing. We catch snippets of conversation peering around half-open doors. We catch other dialogue mumbled against headboards. We watch as silently, robotically the women of Madam Ryan’s go through the daily mechanics of the world’s oldest profession.

There’s nothing even slightly titillating or attractive about any of it. This is the wild west stripped bare (literally). What we uncover is sad and sobering.

Was The Wicked Wicked West entertaining? Nope. Did make me want to hold the deed to my very own home (with my solitary signature on it) close to my chest? Yes.

* * *

110 minutes

Rated R for nudity, sexuality and really bad makeup

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