Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Corsicana’: Rookie Director Isaiah Washington Delivers a Western for the Ages

BY Michael Clark TIMEAugust 24, 2022 PRINT

R | 1h 42min | DramaWestern, Thriller | 26 August 2022 (USA)

Having never officially fallen out of favor with audiences, Westerns went from a genre behemoth in the mid-20th century to what is now a compartmented specialty with a modest but fervent cult following.

If not for the efforts of Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Quentin Tarantino, and Taylor Sheridan over the last 50 years, Westerns might have been reduced to direct-to-video, B-Film status.

Best Western Since ‘Unforgiven’

Containing elements of all the above filmmakers (and maybe some of John Ford and Howard Hawks), visceral “Corsicana” is an instant classic. First-time director Isaiah Washington’s mesmerizing, mythical film is the best revisionist Western since Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” from 1992. As of this writing, it is also my favorite movie of 2022.

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Director and star Isaiah Washington as lawman Bass Reeves hunts down the bad guys in “Corsicana.” (Rose Dove Entertainment)

Based on the career of 19th-century lawman Bass Reeves (Washington), the film shares its name with the Texas town where it was shot and is partially set. The first black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River, Reeves captured over 3,000 criminals (while killing 14 of them in self-defense) in his over-35-year career covering three states (Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma).

The Lone Ranger

For those unaware, Reeves was, according to historian Art Burton, the inspiration for the radio, TV, and film character the Lone Ranger, and he has been depicted in nearly a dozen TV shows and now four features in the last decade, including last year’s highly overrated “The Harder They Fall.”

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Jason Johnson as Sam Tanner, Reeves’s former deputy turned preacher, in “Corsicana.” (Rose Dover Entertainment)

The first image shown in the movie is a title card reading “Be Not Caught by the Cunning of Those Who Disappear in Disguise,” prefacing a scene preceding the opening credits. In it, Reeves stumbles into the fire-lit camp of two understandably leery outlaws.

Claiming to be a bootlegger on the run from a posse, Reeves appears to be intoxicated on his own brew and bombards the men with copious amounts of wit and charm. They drop their guard, down some whiskey, and wake up the next morning cuffed and bound with the stone-cold sober Reeves smiling and offering them coffee.

Things kick off in earnest with the introduction of Jack Donner (Lew Temple), the leader of a band of truly psychotic hombres who have been commissioned to “obtain” the leases of oil-rich land by any means necessary.

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Lew Temple as bandit leader Jack Donner, head of the Donner gang in “Corsicana.” (Rose Dove Entertainment)

Tarot Cards

Donner’s only concern is not in slaughtering anyone in his path, but rather being chased by Reeves. Donner does himself no favors by leaving Tarot cards pinned to the corpses he leaves in his wake, not unlike what the real-life “Beltway snipers” John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo would do over a century later.

Literally obliterating anyone in their path whether a threat or not, the Donner gang terrorize an innocent family of four for the better part of an entire day before dispatching them with no pity or quarter.

In the wrong hands, this ghastly sequence, which includes an abhorrent physical assault, would have been impossible to watch and would’ve certainly resulted in the movie getting slapped with an NC-17 rating. It’s just the first of many scenes where Washington and screenwriter Robert Johnson (who also plays a member of the Donner gang) employ a less-is-more approach to violence.

Realizing that he can’t apprehend Donner on his own, Reeves enlists the aid of his former deputy turned preacher, Sam Tanner (Jason Johnson), and a sharpshooter identified only as “California” (Hank Slaughter). It was California, as we are to find out later, who was instrumental in aiding Reeves to flee from a lifetime of certain servitude decades earlier.

This event and other bits of Reeves’s early life are sprinkled throughout the second half of the narrative via flashback (with Thomas Q. Jones as the younger Reeves). It comes with such a wealth of rich material that it could easily be made into a stand-alone origin or prequel film.

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Thomas Q. Jones as a young Bass Reeves, who becomes the first black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi in “Corsicana.” (Rose Dove Entertainment)

There are close to a dozen deaths depicted in the film, yet all but three take place off-screen or are strategically blocked. Of those, two are done with a blade and only one by a bullet. This approach might annoy those always on the lookout for bloodbaths posing as movies, but from a pure storytelling perspective, it is brilliant.

It’s What You Don’t See

Spoon-feeding the audience graphic and gory violence takes little skill and even less imagination. It’s what we don’t see—what is implied—that really haunts us, gets under our skin, and gives us the willies.

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Jason Johnson (L) as Sam Tanner, a former deputy marshal turned preacher, and director and star Isaiah Washington as lawman Bass Reeves in “Corsicana.” (Rose Dove Entertainment)

Washington also doesn’t shy away from including still, distant, long shots. There are two identical-looking scenes that take place near an oak tree in an open field. In each instance, Washington and cinematographer Joshua Shreve never zoom in on the characters as they speak. The dialogue is clear and audible, yet seeing the actors as barely moving specks in the distance adds to and deepens the already palpable sense of dread.

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A scene near an oak tree in an open field. The distance of the scene, with the characters as barely moving specks, adds to and deepens the already palpable dread. (Rose Dove Entertainment)

For any first-time feature director to craft a film this assured, spellbinding, and watertight is in itself a major accomplishment. In Washington’s case, it was miraculous as he had just 48 hours to prepare. A creative difference between the producers and the original unnamed director led to the latter’s departure right before shooting was to start. Washington more than filled the void, and the end result is this breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and mystical masterpiece.

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Promotional ad for “Corsicana,” a story of the first black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. (Rose Dove Entertainment)

Director: Isaiah Washington
Stars: Isaiah Washington, Thomas Q. Jones, Jason Johnson, Hank Slaughter, Lew Temple
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Aug. 26, 2022
Rating: 5 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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