Director Alan J. Pakula took a massive misstep after helming the Watergate-themed masterpiece All the President’s Men (1976), venturing into the world of cowboy drama for the pretentious and unsatisfying Comes a Horseman. Yet even with its profound shortcomings, the picture is interesting because of the caliber of talent involved, and because it’s fascinating to watch Pakula try to blend his dark, meditative style into the vibrant milieu of the revisionist Western. So even though this director and this genre aren’t even remotely a good match, Comes a Horseman boasts powerful moments thanks to rich atmosphere and strong performances, two qualities that distinguish all of Pakula’s films. Jane Fonda stars as a second-generation cattle farmer under pressure from a powerful rancher (Jason Robards) to sell her struggling operation so he can expand his empire. Into the story comes a horseman, obviously, who’s played by decidedly Eastern tough guy James Caan; casting city slicker Caan as a cowboy is one of the movie’s many bold stylistic experiments. Caan helps Fonda turn her farm around, leading to a violent confrontation with Robards and his operatives, since the villain is an omnivorous monster who won’t take no for an answer. Fonda is perfectly cast and quite convincing as a child of the frontier, Robards is entertaining if a touch cartoonish as a megalomaniacal baddie, and Caan struggles valiantly to blend into a genre that doesn’t suit him any more than it suits Pakula. All three leads, however, are upstaged by former stuntman Richard Farnsworth, who scored the first of his two Oscar nominations for his gruffly authentic performance as a wise old cowpoke named Dodger. He’s such a strong presence that scenes without him feel insufficient. Pakula benefits from moody photography by cinematographer Gordon Willis, and though neither Pakula nor Willis are particularly adept at shooting action—Willis is one of the great atmosphere guys, not a run-and-gun shooter—they create several memorably stark moments, like the film’s apocalyptic finale.
Comes a Horseman: FUNKY