The Last of the Gunslingers?: Revisiting The Dark Tower

Is this long-awaited Stephen King adaptation as bad as you’ve been told? Super-fan Richard picks up his twin pistols to find out. 

Films for me used to be something of a binary consideration. Movies, as I saw them, were either good or bad. With the passing of the years and the gaining of insight, these two labels began developing scales and variations; what before had been a black and white distinction began to take on various shades of grey. But through all the movies, I found that those I disliked the most were not at the bottom of the pile. A truly terrible film usually finds some saving grace through irony, ridicule or simply watching it with good company. The films which I cast into my own cinematic hell are those bearing the blandest shade of grey. Films which are not so much bad as they are forgettable. And at the 9th level of that hellscape, to which my mind relegates film so lacking in impression, are those which manage blandness despite overwhelming potential. Movies with great casts, amazing source material or great legacies that merely sit there resting on their laurels and hoping to turn a profit when the time comes for the DVD release. Oceans 12, Miami Vice, Quantum of Solace. These are films which were not only bad but had every element necessary readily at hand to make them at the very least memorable. Now we can add to that list my most disappointing film of 2017: The Dark Tower.

I wanted this movie to be good. I wanted this movie to be good in the same way Nicolas Cage wants a paycheck – deeply and with a hint of desperation. Despite several early warning signs, such as the short running time and almost ludicrously small amount of advertising, I tried to keep hope in my heart that this film would do its source material some semblance of justice. That, while perhaps not as narratively strong as the book series, which is perhaps Stephen King’s greatest work, The Dark Tower would capture that stripped-down, minimalist atmosphere which permeates the story of the Gunslinger and his hunt for the Man in Black. Danish director and scriptwriter Nikolaj Arcel, in his first English-language feature, puts together a film which seems to lack any atmosphere at all.

I will not even attempt to compare the plot of The Dark Tower book series to that of the film, as that is both unfair to the film, as it has only 95-minutes against eight books, and a giant insult to the source because the film’s story is absolute garbage. In summary, we follow a young boy in New York called Jake Chambers, played by Tom Taylor, who has dreams of the Dark Tower, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Roland, the last of the Gunslingers (Idris Elba). Through a bit of detective work, luck and poor CGI, he finds his way to Mid World and, thanks to the miracle of plot convenience, promptly finds Roland and gives him the information he needs to find the Man in Black (here often referred to to as Walter, whom Roland has sworn to kill). They then must journey together to kill Walter and stop his destruction of the Tower, an act which would signal the end of all worlds. Now all of that, and that which follows, makes sense in a bland and conventional Hollywood way. However, utterly lacking from the film’s story is any form of context or motive. What happens onscreen never ties itself in any meaningful sense to the “how” or “why” which would give the events substance or texture. Unless you know the story from before, none of what happens will make any sense. If you have read the books, then you will likely find yourself weeping about sixty minutes in as you get to see a story so rich and layered ground into unrecognisable and meaningless pulp.

One thing the film did very right was in casting Elba and McConaughey as its opposing leads. I honestly struggle to think of two current actors better suited to play Roland and The Man in Black; I refuse to call him Walter. This fantastic casting is, however, wasted on a film which is not sure what to do with either actor, and though both performances are strong, I have also seen both actors do much better work with less iconic roles. The innate magnetism inherent in both characters when paired with two such great actors would suggest truly intense performances, but those efforts are undercut by the clichéd and lifeless script – a hindrance both actors overcome in spades when they’re allowed to stop talking. While Elba can stoically scowl at the barren wasteland like it’s nobody’s business, McConaughey’s best moments are when he is simply allowed to walk, with the swagger of the devil at play, into any room or place like he bought it lock, stock and barrel for a nickel a piece.

The plot may be a labyrinth of unconnected madness but it’s the dialogue which kills The Dark Tower stone dead. The characters say for the most part what you expect them to say at any given time in the laziest and most predictable manner possible, and nobody suffers from this worse than Tom Taylor’s Jake. Now, Taylor can act, there’s no question about that. But much like his costars, he seems to coast through the performance and, unlike the other two leads, he simply doesn’t have enough gravitas to get away with phoning this in.  It’s a real shame since, throughout the film, little glimpses of actual ability find their way into the role, but as he laden with the brunt of the movie’s expositional dialogue, those moments are too few and far between.

The film does have a few saving graces that save it from absolute monotony. The character designs for Roland and the Man in Black are right on-point, though both seemed a little too clean and well-maintained for having spent years in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Roland’s costume design is perfect for the character, but could’ve really done with a roll in the dirt. Similarly, Elba looks a little too undamaged for the last Gunslinger, lacking some of the character’s built-up grizzle. Thankfully The Dark Tower has moments where the safety wheels come off and it picks up some actual momentum. While those beats all have a slight taste of “made for the trailer” about them, Roland using the sandalwood guns is just pretty damn sweet, especially the variety of quick reloads displayed which are both interesting and undeniably badass. You can almost noticeably see the click in Elba’s performance when he draws the guns and his body comes alive in the action, and when speaking his only really good piece of dialogue, the “Gunslinger’s Creed.”

The Dark Tower disappointed me. Bad stories are a thing which exist in the world and they have their necessary places, as do the good stories told badly and bad stories told well. What made The Dark Tower such a letdown is that it represents an amazing story not told at all. There is no journey here, and no drama or magic. If you want to spend 95-minutes in a dark space and watch what amounts to a passably constructed light show interspersed with the sound of gunfire, then there are certainly more painful variations you could choose. But, if you wanted to look at the lights and see something more, to listen to the immortal words of the Gunslingers and feel something more, then I am sorry to say that this film leaves much to be desired. 

This is a film which aims with its hand, not with its eye. This a film which shoots with its hand, not with its mind. This a film which kills with its gun, not with its heart. This is a film which has forgotten the face of its father.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Dr. Hotchkiss, Jake’s psychiatrist, has a picture in his office of the Overlook Hotel, from The Shining (1980), another film based on a Stephen King novel.
  • Daniel Craig, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Mads Mikkelsen were considered for the lead role before Idris Elba was cast.
  • The chime that plays in the first official trailer is the same one that plays in the two pocket watches in For a Few Dollars More, the 1965 Spaghetti Western that teams up Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as two bounty hunters chasing a vicious gang. They then starred as antagonists in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Stephen King claims that movie was half the inspiration for The Dark Tower.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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