This was suggested by my sister and brother-in-law. He is a great fan of Westerns, and she singled this one out as a personal favorite of hers.
Based on some of the reviews I was able to dig up, I think Purgatory might have seemed better when it first came out as a TNT TV movie. At best, they expected a run-of-the-mill time waster, and when it turned out to be a bit better than that, they were understandably pleased. I came to it, though, expecting it to be more than run-of-the-mill, and when it was just OK, I felt a bit let down.
One of the many pleasures of genre is that we get to relive the same patterns and metaphors and archetypes. Especially in the earlier days of Western movies, you knew what to expect when you watched a Western, and the things that made one Western a classic and another Western a dud were subtle … the classic and the dud were still recognizably Westerns. This is true for more than just movies, of course. Some people like police procedurals, and they’ll watch the various Law & Order and NCIS and CSI shows at random. It barely matters which one is on, or which episode from which season … what matters is that you know what you are getting when you turn on your TV.
The thing is, the more you watch genre fare, the more attuned you are to the archetypes, the more you value the small step away from the norm. If you’ve seen a thousand Westerns that were all pretty much the same, and then one day came across a Western with a twist, it would be quite refreshing. Purgatory is an example of this. It’s a Western, with shootouts and bad guys and sheriffs and saloons and horses, it’s got characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Doc Holliday (yes, all of them). Sounds like a standard Western, but then there’s the part where … well, I’m not one for spoilers, but just look at the title. It’s a Western with a metaphysical, fantasy bent. The Same Old Western Town, “Refuge”, isn’t really the Same Old Western Town (again, see the title). The characters (OK, I’m dumping a lot of spoilers into this post, but it’s a 1999 TV movie, fer chrissake, there’s gotta be a statute of limitations) aren’t just Sheriff Forrest and Doc Woods and Deputy Glen, they are Wild Bill and Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid, only they’re (see the title).
That’s quite a twist, and it turns Purgatory into something other than Just Another Western. The cast is solid, as well: Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Randy Quaid, Donnie Wahlberg, and other “hey, it’s that guys” like Peter Stormare and John Diehl and Richard Edson and R.G. Armstrong.
But one genre it never really escapes from is that of the TV movie. It gets the job done, but in a rather plodding fashion. And there isn’t a lot of originality once you get past the twist … we’re not talking Firefly.
It also doesn’t pay to think too hard about the basic scenario. Given the rules the film establishes, all of those famous bad guys wouldn’t be in Refuge at the same time. It is unclear how Purgatory’s own bad guys, led by Eric Roberts, manage to end up in Refuge. And the moral at the end of the movie is reminiscent of those old Billy Jack movies, which preached peace and love but always fell back on scenes of Billy Jack kicking everyone’s ass. The famous bad guys make a decision near the end of the film that ensures they are going to Hell (and in this movie, Hell is a real place and you don’t want to be there). But, after doing the things that will send them to Hell, they are instead rewarded with a trip to Heaven, as if Billy Jack wrote the script and said “oh, I changed my mind, it’s OK to kick ass if the ass belongs to a bad guy”.
Nowhere is this more jarring than in the scene that kicks off the final shootout. Jesse, Wild Bill, Doc, and some made-up guy you don’t care about take the long walk to their doom, knowing that Hell awaits them. They line up just like The Wild Bunch did in that classic movie’s classic scene, but the homage only reminds you that The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest Westerns of all time, while Purgatory is a TV movie with Eric Roberts as The Bad Guy. And the end is a cheat: the Wild Bunch do indeed fight until their death, but the “good” guys in Purgatory don’t even end up in Hell. The quote that caps all of this, “The Creator's tough, but he ain't blind”, is a literal example of a deus ex machina, and while it’s another unexpected twist to the typical Western to find out God made it happen, it’s a lazy way to finish the film.
None of this would matter if the characters had depth, but here, Purgatory relies entirely on archetypes. All we know about the main characters, we learn from their “real” names: the Sheriff is Wild Bill Hickok, and that’s all you need to know about him. Same thing with Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Doc Holliday. The characters in The Wild Bunch drew on archetypes, but they were more than that; they had depth, and you cared about them as more than just a way to move the plot along.
Still, if I can write this much about a TV movie, wherein I spend a lot of time comparing it to The Wild Bunch, then the movie clearly has something going for it. I’ve seen TV movies that were a lot worse than Purgatory. Hell, I’ve seen “movie movies” that were a lot worse than Purgatory. 6/10.