[Review] 'Organ Trail' is a Brutal and Bloody Western About Life on the Frontier
If you were a kid in the 90s, you played The Oregon Trail game. What better way to spend computer class than succumbing to a million different ways to die in the West? Fresh off the fire from director Michael Patrick Jann, Organ Trail (a clever play on the aforementioned game’s title) offers up a similar bleak experience, but one that is a hell of a lot more violent and most definitely not for kids.
Written by Meg Turner and set in 1870, Montana, Organ Trail centers around Abby (Zoe De Grand Maison) and her family as they navigate through a fierce winter storm. After their camp is attacked and Abby kidnapped by a band of outlaws, she finds herself in a fight for survival that will push her to become as ruthless as the world she lives in.
Get yourself a bucket of ice cream and something cuddly to hug afterwards, because the journey through Organ Trail is a bumpy horseback ride sure to give you a good kick to the face.
As if to smack expectations for anything “fun” over the head with a shovel and bury them six feet under, Organ Trail opens on a black picture with the cacophonic sounds of a squealing dog as it is trapped, killed, and dragged across a snowy plain. It took only three seconds for this film to upset me to the very core. Intentional, of course, because in case you didn’t know, life on the frontier was, at best, a cruel existence, and that cruelty comes gnashing out of the screen over and over and over again. Throughout its entirety, the filmmakers bludgeon the viewer with gruesome violence and tragic death. None of it is excessive, though, as the film seeks to demonstrate to its audience the nature of living during this time. Comfort was rare. Killing, necessary.
Organ Trail reminds us how lucky we all are to have not been born in the 1800s.
From the atmospherics of the plains howling with a cold wind to Jherek Bischoff and Craig Wedren’s melancholic score, the misery of Jann’s film consumes the viewer like a hungry Wendigo. Underneath breathtaking landscape shots is a constant reminder that this place is Hell. Populating this dreary narrative are Abby’s captors, moronic Brody (Michael Abbott Jr.), naïve Felix (Alejandro Akara), oblivious to pain, Rhys (Nicholas Logan), their leader, Logan (Sam Trammell) and the woman they use as bait, Cassidy (Olivia Grace Applegate). A well-rounded group of villains ranging from “does what they have to” to “loves nothing more than killing,” Organ Trail explores the thin line drawn between survival and death. In this world, in this time, surviving often means the killing of something/someone else.
Nicholas Logan in particular steals the show as devilish bastard Rhys, a man who cannot feel anything and will remind some of Bond villain Renard from The World is Not Enough. Yet every character manages to stand out thanks to exceptional performances from the cast. Heavy on survivalist themes and characters conflicted with who they are (or what they must do), there’s a certain agony that emanates from even the worst of people in Organ Trail. The occasional emotional reprieve of a warm, human moment only makes the film hurt that much more. Put another way, Organ Trail is pain.
Jann’s film isn’t exactly a horror film, but more of a vicious western with horrific elements. Bandits. Bars. Brutal revenge. Organ Trail has all of the hallmarks of your average western, filled with hardened characters you’d never want to get into a brawl with. Jann isn’t afraid to get nasty with the brutality, either. While not quite as bloody as you might expect based on the film’s first act (or title), the filmmakers deliver on the effects, including one bit in the finale that should make some end of year lists for best makeup.
I wish I could say the character arcs were as satisfying.
What keeps Organ Trail from riding off into the sunset victorious is a premise that offers few surprises once it gets going and weak character development that doesn’t challenge our heroes as much as it probably should. For as strong as the performances are, the bones of the roles don't have much meat on them. Time and again dangerous encounters resolve a little too easily while characters aren't allowed to do quite enough to leave the audience fully satisfied with their growth. On the other side of our heroes are villains who are ruthless, sure, but are so dimwitted and one-note that they don’t pose as much of a threat as needed to carry the film through to an underwhelming finish.
Bleak. Brutal. Bloody. Organ Trail is a revenge western that lives up to its name. The story may seem familiar and the vengeance factor doesn’t quite hit a bullseye, but strong performances and confident direction from Jann wrangle in the flaws enough to make this a worthwhile watch for anyone craving a dark tale around the fire on the western frontier.
Organ Trail arrives on digital May 12th from Paramount.
By Matt Konopka
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