Jason Momoa fans may want a little forewarning about The Last Manhunt, which prominently places both his name and face on the poster. Chiefly, that he’s not really in it. His character of “Big Jim” has maybe three scenes, suddenly popping into the story with little impact, or establishment of where the hell he just came from. Essentially, he’s doing a good deed for a story he co-wrote, and one that’s likely personal to him. Momoa has a home in the Joshua Tree area, and the story of Willie Boy, previously filmed as the Robert Redford-Robert Blake western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, is one of the region’s most prevailing true-life tales.
Unlike previous tellings, however, Momoa’s—cowritten and scripted by his Braven collaborator Thomas Pa’a Sibbett and directed by Days And Nights’ Christian Camargo—relies on Native accounts of the story and its aftermath, and not on (white) media accounts of the time. It’s a legend that didn’t become “fact,” Liberty Valance-style, but one that may be no more or less reliable.
Most accounts agree on the fact that a young Paiute man named Willie Boy and his apparent lover Carlota ran across the desert for 26 days after he shot her father. It ended tragically, but has also become the last historically significant example of a sheriff rounding up a posse for a manhunt, rather than having fully staffed law enforcement do the job.
As The Last Manhunt has it, Willie Boy (Martin Sensmeier) and Carlota (Mainei Kinimaka) abscond one night during a Ghost Dance, only to be caught the next day by her father, William (Zahn McClarnon, also Echo’s father in Hawkeye). He’s furious because they’re cousins, yet Carlota insists that because their tribe in the area is so small in numbers, it’s not like she has any other options.
That’s about all we learn about the lovers before a tussle over a gun leads to William’s accidental death by shooting. His wife, Maria, tells the lovers to run, but then the next day promptly insists that the sheriff go get them, since it happened on non-Indian land. It’s unclear what outcome she’s hoping for, but perhaps presumes that a mixed posse of white men and Indians on behalf of the law will prevent a more violent vigilante response. After all, one of William’s good pals is a legendarily great tracker named John Hyde (Raoul Maximiano Trujillo), who now wants Willie’s head, against the sheriff’s explicit orders.
Joshua Tree is a beautiful part of the country (full disclosure: I too have a home there), and The Last Manhunt captures many scenic sunrises, sunsets, golden hours, and moments of light streaming between rocks. If only the people wandering through the scenery were as captivating—we learn very little about Willie Boy and Carlota to make us root for them, and every time the movie cuts back to their point of view, it’s often accompanied by a near-atonal score that sounds like a pale Jonny Greenwood imitation. The rest of the soundtrack features authentic tribal music that sounds great, and the contrast is distracting. (Fernando Arroyo Lascurain serves as music editor, with no composer formally credited.)
On the posse side of things, there’s a fair bit of back and forth about Indian guides tricking the white men as regards finding water for the horses, and a subplot about a reporter tagging along and sensationalizing the story. This leads to one good newsroom scene in which we get a sense of how Wild West-era Fox News worked; “We are selling fear, Mr. Randolph, are we not?” says one editor. More of it would be fun, but that’s not this movie.
Fundamentally, the issue with The Last Manhunt is that it’s not artsy enough to be much more than a basic posse movie, but it’s not exciting enough to just do that well. Think of it a bit like the 1909 equivalent of a live televised police chase, except it covers a span of 26 days (edited into 103 minutes, of course). Correctives to classic “cowboys and Indians” cinema are always welcome, but perhaps out of concern for not falsifying anything else, Camargo gives us little insight into Willie Boy’s life and thoughts. What ought to be a more empathetic tale therefore instead comes off as basic reenactment 101.
With great visuals and the best of intentions, what falls flat here is an artistic vision. In service of getting the story correct, at least according to the versions the filmmakers have heard, the only embellishments they really allow themselves are with the score. Momoa’s clearly abetting a passion project here, but unfortunately, Camargo hasn’t managed to capture a similar passion from his main cast.