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A Good Day to Die (1995)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

In the intricate construction of its plot, A Good Day to Die sets up a number of questions about race and relationship — rich and worthy questions that get well beyond platitudes. By (mostly) avoiding simple stereotypes, the film’s characters, relationships, and scenarios achieve an emotional impact that platitudes would have missed. With racism as a central part of the film’s exploration, A Good Day to Die asks about our own attitudes toward race, yet it asks more than that. Where are we to find our hearts’ richest dreams? How and why do we often substitute cheaper dreams? How do our dreams prevent us from living in the reality of life as it is thrown to us? How can we summon the courage and audacity to live the Beauty we find? To a significant degree, the film’s exploration of these questions gives more power to its exploration of race by distracting our attention from the film’s central exploration, directing us to the power of life in the midst of oppression.

That said, its exploration of race is strong in itself. Though there are typical scenarios and expected actions of interracial oppression, they are portrayed richly from the side of the courage and temerity of the oppressed. The film explores some, though little, of the ways in which people become oppressors, focusing mostly on the visceral effects of oppression. This is understandable — the oppressive acts are reprehensible and should be stopped, even at high cost — but it leaves us to demonize the oppressors rather than seeing them as human — sorely misguided, yet still human and worthy of compassion (and also of justice, appropriately meted out). Such would have made the film’s exploration more complete, but still, what it does give us is very strong.

In addition to the strength of its story, A Good Day to Die’s filmcraft is generally very good: strong acting, good pacing, very good sets and vistas. But, the film is a cut down version of the TV mini-series Children of the Dust, and this is likely the reason for the biggest weakness of the film: The plot starts to simplify a bit toward the end, and some characters’ choices are not fully developed. Still, the strength of the rest makes it easier to look past this and toward the conclusion the film is driving to. Offering grace to the film for taking these few shortcuts, it is very strongly worth the time.

It’s the 19th century American West, and Gypsy Smith is a half Cherokee, half African-American drifter and gunslinger. When the US cavalry needs to talk to the chief of a local native tribe, he helps them only on assurances that it will be a peaceful meeting. It turns out otherwise and, in the fray, Gypsy grabs and runs with the chief’s orphaned son, leaving him to be raised in the care of the region’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officer. What follows is an intricate tale of interconnected relationships between white, red, and black, between loyalty and desertion, between appearances and reality, and between dreams and fears. Running time: 120 min (the original TV mini-series was 175 min).

It’s the old west, and guns are part of the scene, both for justice and vengeance. Through power plays, some oppress others in painful ways. There is no nudity, but there are two or three sexually charged scenes. Some language.

  • Director: David Greene
  • Screenplay: Joyce Eliason based on Clancy Carlile’s novel
  • Leads: Sidney Poitier, Joanna Going, Billy Wirth, Michael Moriarty, Hart Bochner, Regina Taylor, James Caviezel
  • Cinematography: Ron Orieux
  • Music: Mark Snow

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