‘Americana’ Review: Sydney Sweeney and Halsey in a Contemporary Western That Cleverly Subverts Expectations
Directed by Tony Tost, the recent SXSW selection also stars Paul Walter Hauser and Simon Rex.
The theft of a valuable Native American artifact triggers a cascading series of violent crimes in Americana, a revisionist Western set in present-day South Dakota. Writer-director Tony Tost brings his years of experience on similarly themed episodic series like Damnation and Longmire to his directing debut, an ensemble feature with multiple overlapping storylines. The plot premise for Americana concerns a Lakota nation "ghost shirt," a garment fashioned from animal skin that was thought to be instilled with special powers for adherents of the ghost dance, a late 19th century Native American religious movement.
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Although stylistically and thematically a Western, the borderline comedic tone of Tost's script, along with frequent gratuitous violence, rapid-fire dialogue and a non-linear narrative structure, suggest Americana is more of a hybrid crime drama in the Tarantino mold. The film's appeal for genre enthusiasts should also be enhanced by the appearance of multi-platinum singer-songwriter Halsey in her first dramatic role, a striking performance that sees her easily holding her own with top-liners Sydney Sweeney and Paul Walter Hauser.
Halsey plays Mandy Starr, who shares a nondescript double-wide with her boyfriend Dillon (Eric Dane), an inept small-time hood, and young son Cal (Gavin Maddox Bergman). With her life at an apparent dead end, Mandy doesn't even want to get out of bed most mornings, much less care for Cal, a free-range kid with a fondness for insisting that he's the reincarnation of Sitting Bull. When unscrupulous antiquities dealer Roy Lee Dean (Simon Rex) hires Dillon to steal a valuable Lakota ghost shirt from a private collector in a bloody home invasion, Mandy decides the best solution to her problems is to cut him out of the deal and resell the shirt herself. A deft hammer swing to the back of his head knocks Dillon cold, so she can steal the shirt and take off with his muscle car, leaving Cal behind when he refuses to go along.
She's not the only one planning to profit off the Native American artifact though: Local waitress Penny Jo (Sweeney) overhears Roy Lee making a deal to sell the ghost shirt for a half-million dollars at the diner where she works and figures it could fund her dreams of country-singer stardom. Struggling through her persistent stammer, she recruits lovelorn restaurant regular Lefty Ledbetter (Hauser) to help her separate Mandy from the shirt.
Calvin, meanwhile, meets up with some actual Native Americans, and once he tells them about the theft of the Lakota shirt, Ghost Eye (Zahn McClarnon) and Hank Spears (Derek Hinkey) set out to recover their tribal heritage, taking Calvin along for insurance should his mother need any persuading. With Mandy on the run, heading back to her father's Wyoming ranch, and Roy Lee in close pursuit, all parties are set to converge in a bloody battle royal for possession of the shirt.
Shooting New Mexico for South Dakota, Tost incorporates the wide-open spaces, cultural conflicts and endemic lawlessness typical to Westerns, while inverting conventional expectations by foregrounding Native American perspectives on some of the film's thornier social issues. At the same time, the frequent shootouts, unusual weapon choices (compound bows and game-hunting arrows) and high body counts imply an amusingly ironic subversion of the genre.
With her hair styled in a long raven mullet, Halsey's Mandy embodies the type of emotionally scarred but unfailingly tenacious women widely celebrated in country music, as she strives to escape a lifetime of abusive relationships, provide for her child and make something decent out of her life. Penny Jo, played by Sweeney with touching vulnerability and pluck, faces comparable challenges herself, as her speech disability consistently interferes with her personal relationships, only abating when she's singing her favorite Dolly Parton songs. Hauser displays a similarly attuned sensitivity to Lefty's romantic ineptitude and craving to connect, as he commits to going all-in to support Penny Jo's aspirations for a Nashville music career.
While Americana doesn't particularly reinvent the Western, Tost's portrayal of characters driven by unfettered greed or justifiable need gives voice to often-ignored segments of society as they strive for agency and respect -- an admirable quality in any narrative genre.