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Leatherface (2017) - Movie Review

Leatherface (2017)
Leatherface (2017)

Two decades before the Sawyer clan would gain infamy as the cannibalistic hillbilly family in the backwoods of rural Texas, their youngest progeny, Jedidiah Sawyer, finds himself at the wrong end of the law after participating in a murder. Committed to a mental hospital for troubled youths and assigned a new identity, a now teenaged Jed escapes with three other inmates and a nurse held hostage. Violence and mayhem ensue as a vengeful Texas Ranger chases them down. This sets the stage for the latest installment and prequel to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, 2017's simply named Leatherface.

Despite being set in the same continuity as the late Tobe Hooper's landmark film (and having Hooper's name attached as an executive producer), most of this film feels very different from its predecessors. At its core, this is a violent road movie with horror overtones that focuses on four deeply disturbed kids and the equally unstable lawman on their tail, told from the perspective of the hapless nurse caught in the middle. That said, this isn't a Hellraiser-style retooling of an original story that tries to force itself into an existing mythology; Leatherface clearly deals with familiar characters, settings, and ideas, all while doing its own thing. Characters like Drayton and Nubbins Sawyer from the first film make significant appearances, but most of the references belong to characters and events introduced in 2013's Texas Chainsaw, such as Verna Carson, Barry Farnsworth, and the Hartmans, whose feud with the Sawyers is explained in more detail.

Let me first say this is a better film than Texas Chainsaw in practically every way. For example, Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff, in a perfectly understated performance) is a far more sympathetic and believable antagonist than Paul Rae's Burt Harman from the 2013 flick, even as he commits similar acts of blatantly illegal brutality and murder in his quest to bring Texas justice to the Sawyers, and Nurse Lizzie White (Vanessa Grasse)--despite being relegated to a damsel-in-distress role for almost the whole story--is a less incoherently written protagonist than the awful Heather Miller. One or two very minor nitpicks aside, Leatherface also handles the continuity much better. That disclaimed, it isn't particularly memorable or interesting beyond its cheap thrills.

A young woman's ass
The obligatory "this is a Texas Chainsaw movie" shot

The best thing the film has going for it are its characters. As with the Texas Ranger and the nurse, the four teenage delinquents are incredibly well-realized. Hints are sprinkled throughout about each one's backstory, and these inform their violent actions in effective ways without the writers feeling the need to spell everything out in exhausting detail. While the inverse who-done-it mystery that holds them together--trying to figure out which one is the titular Leatherface--feels a bit contrived at first, it keeps audiences attentive and interested in who each of them is and what drives them.

There's Bud, the fat kid who fits what you'd imagine a young Leatherface would look like a little too well, and he's driven by some kind of twisted internal moral code that is almost sympathetic. Then there's Jackson, the apparently good kid who does his best to protect the nurse from the two most disturbed of the group, Ike and Clarice. Clarice is by far the most deliciously twisted character in the entire movie, and Ike manages to be intimidating enough to maintain the plot's most questionable conceit, that this dischordant group would actually stay together. Ancillary characters include Verna, the determined mother/aunt of Jed Sawyer who is played with relish by Lily Taylor, and Deputy Sorrel, the only seemingly virtuous cop in the entire Texas police force who is played by Finn Jones in a performance that doesn't really stand out one way or another. All of these characters have multiple dimensions to them and all of the actors are relatively good, and that manages to hold the movie together through its less successful parts.

Stephen Dorff as Texas Ranger Hal Hartman
Stephen Dorff delivers his best performance in many years

Those include a breakneck first act that resorts to a lot of obvious exposition to set the stage and a third act that feels a little out of sync with the rest of the film. While the second act--the meat of the plot--is by far its best, it still meanders here and there. This is a relatively short movie at just under 90 minutes, but it still manages to feel too long in the end. A more patient introduction and a more efficient conclusion would have gone a long way here.

However, the brutal violence, when it happens, does not disappoint. It's geared more for shock value than originality or artistic merit, and it lays the gore on pretty thick. Kills are ripped out of better movies like American History X and Hannibal, but they're done with enough guilty relish to be forgiven for it. Besides, the gore is really well-done, with no obvious CG and a few deeply disturbing images that will rattle around in your brain long after the movie is over. Without spoiling too much, there's a gunshot wound late in the movie that is super gnarly. I suppose the dedication to practical gore should come as no surprise once you learn that the most expensive thing in the movie is a rotting cow corpse.

Ike shooting a woman with a shotgun
There's a lot of blood

The cinematography, on the whole, is pretty good. Most of the film is shot in medium close-ups with tight focus and minimal shaky cam, allowing you to get inside the characters' personal space enough to see the grime and sweat. On top of the low lighting, low angles, and an inexhaustible supply of orange filters, the tone is uncomfortable without being overly unsettling. The lighting gets a bit too dark during the climax and it's never as beautifully framed as the 2003 remake, but most of the film is shot admirably well.

Ultimately, Leatherface is better than it has any right being, but it never justifies its existence. The character of Leatherface doesn't require a backstory, and while this film does build him in a believable way that is more in keeping with the original film than you'd expect, telling that backstory adds little, if anything, to the other films in the series. I applaud it for telling a different kind of story and for having fun with the canon. I even applaud it for keeping Texas Chainsaw in continuity, even though that's an awful movie, because it shows respect for fans.

I went into this with admittedly low expectations, but I walk away genuinely surprised. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-crafted. Fans of a bloody, gore-filled thrill ride will have fun without having their intelligence insulted, but audiences looking for depth or to recapture the magic of Tobe Hooper's classic disturbia should probably look elsewhere.

FINAL SCORE:

Despite a few pacing issues and an apparent lack of purpose, Leatherface is a vast improvement for the series and a surprisingly well-made genre flick.


-e. magill 9/21/2017

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