“Diablo” is essentially a mid-quality “Twilight Zone” episode that manages to get its high concept idea and simple yet universal themes to stick the landing, thanks to a focused and straightforward narrative approach that avoids needless filler. It’s not on the same level of brilliance and freshness as “Moon” or “Source Code,” other movies that borrow a page from the classic show, but it also doesn’t get bogged down, overtly-convoluted, or self-serious in its attempts at a mixing high concept with pressing sociopolitical or philosophical themes.
“Diablo” takes big gulps from two narrative wells that “The Twilight Zone” frequently drew from. The first one is a western-themed episode of which “The Twilight Zone” had a surprising amount of, which can be attributed to the popularity of western shows during the early ’60s. The second one is a form of genre switcheroo that the show loved to exploit at least a handful of times every season.
From the outset, screenwriter Carlos De Los Rios and director Lawrence Roeck seem to be aware that they don’t have a particularly clever or fresh twist. Instead of banking on a supposedly grave and shocking finale that would have revealed the film’s big secret, they unceremoniously get that part out of the way in order to focus more on the story’s slightly derivative but sufficiently effective take on post-war PTSD, as well as soldiers’ yearning to form conventional lives after spending years being ordered to brutally murder people.
It’s been seven years since The Civil War ended. Jackson (Scott Eastwood), a Union veteran, now lives happily with his wife Alexsandra (Camilla Belle) in a ranch in the middle of nowhere. That is, until an evil gang of Mexicans kidnap Alexsandra, forcing Jackson to go after his wife, come hell or high water. So far, it looks like we’re in for yet another low-budget retelling of “The Searchers,” complete with the less than subtle xenophobia.
But something doesn’t sit right with the way this story’s told. The film opens immediately with the kidnapping, so we don’t get a single scene depicting the happy couple together before the shit hits the fan. Isn’t it in the “genre flicks about kidnappings” rulebook that we’re obligated to see the protagonists living their happy, carefree lives for a good chunk of the first act so that we give a crap about them when one of them is taken? Oh well, let’s move on: As Jackson makes his way through the cold, snow-covered wilderness to find his wife’s kidnappers, he comes across various groups of people who turn out to be not so sympathetic to his cause.
You’d think that a good man, one who’s also supposed to be a war hero, would get help along the way for such a noble cause. As Jackson begins to process the animosity that’s being thrown his way by a number of people, including a group of Native Americans who save his life yet can’t wait to get rid of him immediately afterwards, he finds himself having to contend with a mysterious and braggadocious killer named Ezra (Walton Goggins), a man who takes great pleasure from murdering indiscriminately. As Jackson battles with Ezra on his way to saving his wife, we gradually begin to realize that maybe there was a reason why we didn’t see any scenes of Jackson and his wife together.
It’s obvious why Scott Eastwood was chosen to lead a brooding and moody Western that flirts with light horror, since he’s basically a clone of his father as far as strict physicality is concerned. He does a good job imitating Clint’s trademark scowl, but he lacks his effortless charisma. Incidentally, he does a better job with scenes that require him to be vulnerable and emotionally distraught. He’s a talented dude in a different way than his father, so maybe the apple should fall a bit farther from the tree in this case.
As his performance in “The Hateful Eight” proved once again, Walton Goggins embodies a sense of cocky swagger like nobody’s business, and that’s definitely the case here. Unfortunately, he gets very little screen time, which left me wanting more. There’s a point in the story where Goggins could have completely taken over the third act, and that would have been glorious.
With his second feature, Roeck shows that he’s a talented and patient genre storyteller, even though his film’s rather flat cinematography and low budget doesn’t match his obviously more grandiose vision. As far as high concept western/horror flicks are concerned, “Diablo” is nowhere near the excellence of the recent VOD release “Bone Tomahawk,” but it should be satisfying for audiences who are in store for a moody and intriguing genre exercise. [B-]