James Cotten’s female-led western, Painted Woman, opened the 2018 Manchester Film Festival, and audiences witnessed a presentation of a female hero braking from her constraints and ensuring that the next generation is safer from paedophilia, prostitution and physical abuse.
Painted Woman’s plot features two story chapters: one depressing and the other much more uplifting. Opening with flashbacks of happier and some sad times, the first chapter presents Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games films) as Julie Richards, under the ownership of the old and sleazy, Kyle Allison (Future Man’s Robert Craighead). During dinner at the mansion home, Allison introduces the all-black-wearing assassin, Frank Dean (Kyle XY’s Matt Dallas), however, Allison notices that Frank is attracted to Julie, thus she now must be slapped, chocked, forced to do a sexual act, and then moved on, so Allison can acquire a new, underage girl from the whore house.
In chapter two, Julie is on the run from the assassin, Frank, but after injuring herself from banging her head on a rock, she is subsequently under the care of horse trainer, Vince Wagner (Girl Meets World’s David Thomas Jenkins), and his Apache best friend, Chato (Kiowa Gordon from the Twilight sequels). During her stay with the best buddies, Julie learns to, essentially, become human again. A rebirth as such occurs after skinny dipping in a lake nearby camp, of which she cleanses away the sadness and despair of her previous life under Allison’s abuse, and is now free to be with new emotions and openness. However, is Julie more likely to find true love at last or be found and murdered by the assassin, Frank?
As she does not have that many lines, Stef Dawson sells Julie with emotion – both bodily and facially. Because Julie does not have many lines, it can be read and agreed that because of the torment sustained under Allison, why would she be completely open and talkative both within an abusive family home and far away outside with complete strangers? Credit where it’s due, Robert Craighead is terrific as Allison – he’s sleazy, abusive, sexist, degrading, despicable etc – everything you want to hate in a paedophilic character.
The two friends, Vince and Chato, are believable characters, but also quite different as Painted Woman progresses. To an extent, Vince is close to being a sugar-free Han Solo during the early stages of his character, though the cool guy ac is soon dropped, and a naturalistic charmer is on-screen. Chato on the other hand begins as the almost stereotypical Native American character, but very soon transcends into being the comic relief to an extent. The good character development is credit to the acting of both David Thomas Jenkins and Kiowa Gordon, and the creative visions by James Cotten.
Matt Dallas as Frank Dean, however, wow, is quite obviously the weakest of the lead and main supporting performances. Despite murdering several people in Painted Woman, it is hard to truly buy into Dallas’ portrayal of Frank – was it the overdone Kentucky accent? The only time Frank is believable as a villain was with his usage of a revolver pistol, though a true villain of the western does not need to rely on his six-shooter to be feared. At most, looking at him, Frank is a parody of Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
On a more positive note, for an indie film, Painted Woman is visually stunning at times. The way in which James Cotten captures the sun is truly magnificent, and presents a wonderfully artistic technique in paralleling a character with the placement and action of the sun.
As an indie film, Painted Woman is not possible to be a spectacle western of sorts, but because of this, some of the more violent actions, such as strangling and shooting, look grittier and more realistic because they’re not overdone with conventional, blockbuster-movie-style editing. On the flipside, having a “shoestring” budget can hinder ultimate creativity – an example would be the construction of original buildings. Because of constraints, a large building would have to be pre-existing, such as Allison’s mansion – sadly, its exterior and internal shots did not create the feel of a western, thus it can create the feeling of the audience thinking that they’re just watching fancy dress, maybe.
Conclusively, Painted Woman is a definitive viewing for those who champion women in film, and like westerns, of course. In the year of the woman, it is appropriate to have a female-led western, in which said female is not sexualised, but she is strong and ultimately, more powerful than her abuser(s) and hunter. Despite a questionable villain, Painted Woman is much more about rebirth, learning to live again, and surviving in a male-dominated society.
In the post-screening Q&A of its UK premiere, James Cotten exampled how the abuse and control presented in Painted Woman still exists within societies in his home country of the USA, thus Painted Woman holds key importance to those who are currently under sufferance and those who are lucky enough to have survived it.