Let’s not fool ourselves into pretending that Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, a film that has spent a considerable amount of time in pre and post production, functions as any sort of deliberate statement on a Trumpian America. But there some neat coincidental parallels, so let’s talk about some of them.
At its center (and something that goes against previous adaptations following Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) is its emphasis on a single deplorable antagonist. Whereas previous renditions of this narrative have vilified a gang of misfits tormenting poor townsfolk, Fuqua’s vision sees Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) as a singular specter of greed, threatening the community of Rose Creek through fear-mongering rhetoric and exploitation of the weak. His cadre of followers aren’t so much defined as they are silhouettes, figures seen riding on horseback against the setting sun with no discernible feature beyond their allegiance to Bogue.
He’s a character reminiscent of The Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Or at least that’s what makes Bogue so interesting, initially. Callous and motivated by capital, Sarsgaard spews the sort of rhetoric that suggests that morals interfere and even disenfranchises the inherently “powerful” in favor of the weak. It’s also the kind of rhetoric that you’ve grown increasingly accustomed to in this election cycle, a kind of charismatic perniciousness. As the prologue comes to its violent halt, we’re asked two things: what kind of man is Bogue and who’s going to stand up to a man like that?
The prologue settles into a narrative that’s less an adaptation or reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s original film than something that has become ingrained in modern action movies. Which is to say that writers Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk don’t make many measures to enrich the material with anything too esoteric, but rather rely on minor modulations of preconceived ideas to keep the film afloat. Here we have Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), looking to avenge the death of her husband. She recruits “warrant officer” Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to rid Rose Creek of Bogue and his men. There’s something elementally compelling about seeing Chisolm and Cullen recruit men to the task, not so much treating the task as a chore but rather as a God-given mission. It’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s recent Sully, where workmanship and duty play a vital role in creating a compelling drama.
Or that’s what The Magnificent Seven should have strived for. While minor dramatic nuances are made to inspire doubt in Chisolm’s crew – from Josh Faraday’s (Chris Pratt) alcoholism to Goodnight Robicheaux’s (Ethan Hawke) PTSD – there’s not much doubt as to where this picture is headed. Predictability is by no means a deal-breaker, but the means in which Fuqua et al. get to their conclusion leaves you dissatisfied and uncomfortable. Whereas previous adaptations have emphasized the act of uniting for a common cause, Fuqua’s vision dumbs down the procedure for queasy sociopolitics, i.e., there’s a tokenism at play here that serves as comic fodder. And the promise of seeing Sarsgaard seize the film is quickly dashed as he remains at the periphery of the frame, never truly returning from the prologue beyond fulfilling his perfunctory final act duties.
As much as I want to endorse a Western that receives a nationwide release, particularly one that opens with such a biting note of contemporary sociopolitical criticism, The Magnificent Seven remake is best left forgotten in the realm of misguided contemporary Westerns with Appaloosa and Seraphim Falls.