Rio Bravo is my favorite movie but I can't imagine how to review it.
This marks my 101st review since relaunching this site in 2014. Prior to that, I strove to review every film I saw. Keeping pace with my movie-watching habit meant cranking out reviews at a relentless pace.
With the relaunch, I focused on quality over quantity. A good review describes the film and the experience watching it. As Roger Ebert said:
In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard.
That's the goal. A cursory look through my last 100 reviews reveals ample failures. Good writers show rather than tell. Too often, I present my opinion as fact instead of building a case for the reader to arrive at the same conclusion.
Consider this line, from my review of Maléfique (2002):
As Carrère, Gérald Laroche provides a grounded audience surrogate whose gradual transformation into a bitter convict carries the film.
What does that mean? How does it carry the film?
Or this bit, from my review of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961):
Patricia Neal plays the rich, married woman who pays Paul's rent and keeps him in nice clothes. She makes an impression by underplaying her role.
How does she underplay the role?
Or from my review of Giallo a Venezia (1979):
The murders—particularly the prostitute's—are uninspired and ugly.
What makes them uninspired and ugly? I'm not describing the murders, I'm describing my reaction to them, but not calling that out as opinion.
And consider the outright nonsense I've written, like the closing line from my review of Interstellar (2014):
Interstellar doesn’t transcend the science fiction genre, it abandons it.
Lines like that make me wonder if I'm wasting my time. True, practice makes perfect, but practice requires feedback.
Stephen King writes for his wife. My wife provides great feedback but I have to petition her to read my work. She doesn't like my style. I could take that as feedback in itself, but I've read reviews she does enjoy and I don't like them.
I've tried soliciting feedback via comments. The few replies I received spoke to my opinions, not the writing itself. Fair enough, considering the site's homepage receives little traffic compared to the individual reviews.
It's time I admit it: Constant Reader, you don't exist.
So why bother?
I ask myself that a lot.
The answer is my daughters. Neither is old enough to read, but they're my audience. At least, their future selves. At my current pace, I'll have written several hundred reviews by the time they're old enough to watch R-rated movies. By the time they're my age, statistics say I'll be dead.
Which makes my failures as a writer all the more painful. But I still have time. Tomorrow's rewrite can fix today's shortfall. Provided I solve the feedback problem.
But back to Rio Bravo.
John Wayne stars as John T. Chance, sheriff of Presidio County, Texas. He's holding Joe Burdette for murder. Joe's brother, Nathan, is a wealthy land baron. Nathan recruits a slew of mercenaries to free Joe. Chance's allies consist of his drunken deputy Dude, played by Dean Martin, a crippled old curmudgeon named Stumpy, played by Walter Brennan, a young gunslinger named Colorado, played by Ricky Nelson, and a showgirl turned gambler named Feathers, played by Angie Dickinson.
The script establishes the premise in the first ten minutes, with almost no dialog. From there, the film unfolds at a languid pace. There are flashes of action, but much of the film sees the cast sitting or standing around indoors, talking or reacting to one-another.
Here is where I falter. I'm not sure why the film works so well. I can point to the charisma of Wayne and Martin, but that's only part of it. The film speaks to something deeper. A good chunk of the film revolves around Chance rehabilitating Dude. Chance doesn't coddle him, but it's not "tough love" either. Chance believes Dude will come around. For Dude, the desire to live up to that faith is stronger than any addiction.
It's a wonderful male fantasy, and for two hours and change, we believe it. Chance is an idealized big-brother/father figure. He's the strong, honest, capable, professional man we want to be. Dude is the flawed, vulnerable man we feel we are. Chance's faith in Dude is Chance's faith in us. Watching Rio Bravo is a low-key cathartic experience. The most powerful scenes are wordless or book-ended with comic relief. It's not a heavy film, but it punches above its weight.
And about the comic relief. Much of it comes via Walter Brennan's character, but repeat viewings have lent a comedic shade to many of Wayne's lines. Like Billy Wilder's best films, Rio Bravo uses comedy as a subtle distraction. When Chance says, "Sorry don't get it done Dude," we smirk at the delivery but feel the message.
I'm closing in on a thousand words and I haven't touched on Angie Dickinson's performance or Dimitri Tiomkin's score. I could devote a couple hundred words to each and not do them justice.
Indeed, one could write a book analyzing the film but I suspect only the author would enjoy it. Rio Bravo taps into emotions it never acknowledges. We interpret the undercurrents based on our own experiences. Over-explaining things would force a singular interpretation and alienate the reader.
Or maybe I'm trying to justify my shortcomings as a writer.
You tell me.