Coming Soon: Buckskin (2021) - Reviewed


"Death never makes the same mistake twice." 

Fatherhood is often overshadowed by near mythical conceptions of masculinity, honor, and duty.  The western genre is a glaring example, when juxtaposed with modern sensibilities that are being explored in cinema every day.  There are those who say the Western is dead, or at the least irrelevant.  Brett Bentman has returned to challenge this notion.  His latest film, Buckskin is a brutal deconstruction of masculine tropes, a heartbreaking dissection of parenthood, partnership, and guilt, filtered through a lens of the American west.  

Porter is a fur trapper with a haunted past who is conscripted by a vicious Captain to venture into the dangerous Buckskin forest to rescue the Captain's grandson from Native Americans who recently attacked a fur trading caravan.  After an ominous tarot reading, Porter begins a sojourn into the woods that ultimately is a crucible of self-reflection and violence in a purgatory of America's past.  Bentman's script lays a foundation of familiarity: The loner hired by the amoral commander to rescue a family member.  A troubled past and a relationship of quiet transactions amidst a military encampment.  These are staples of the genre, but the genius is in how they are exploited to enhance the picture's message. 

Tom Zembrod gives the performance of his career as Porter. He acts with a restrained purpose in virtually every scene, but it is his approach to the overt tones that makes Porter so memorable.  It would have been easy to portray Porter as fearless, but, in line with Bentman's vision, his Porter is vulnerable and mortal.  It is fear, the fear of failure as a father and partner that consumes him, a concept that is often overlooked for flashy violence and machismo swagger.  This is a quiet, intimate, and terrifying story because its simplicity reminds the viewer that things like this happened daily in the old west, and continue to do so today.  Children are murdered while others are drafted into dangerous causes while parents struggle to keep up in an ether of social media horrors and the latest YouTube persona.  As Porter ventures deeper into the hellscape of the Buckskin, the audience becomes a captive alongside him.  The woods, populated by duplicitous hunters, false flag allies, and reminders of past failures, is a reflection of the fears that parents face daily.   

One of the best aspects of the film is Bentman's use of Native American actors.  The Indian characters, particularly in their scene with Porter truly shine with an authenticity that is often forsaken.  No one is truly evil or good in this place of bloodshed and mystery.   The choice to refer to them as “savages” is intriguing because, via action, Bentman shows that anyone is capable of violence and in a limbo where death and life drift dangerously close, no one is beyond reproach.


Beyond the morality at the center, is a fleeting encasement of mythology.  Religious and mysticism ebb back and forth as Porter sees a fortune teller and learns of his fate.  This telling is then the focus of the end of the first act as Porter's wife Cora (Tiffany McDonald) and the profit-oriented Captain (Robert Keith) are consumed with the mystery of what will befall Porter in the Buckskin.  McDonald's scenes with Zembrod are potently restrained, mimicking the arm’s length ambiance of traditional marriages on the frontier.  Bentman again challenges this idea with the mixing in of the occult, allowing McDonald's piety to adapt and question concepts of fate and free will.  Zembrod's ruthless Captain is enslaved by the darker sides of early capitalism.  It is his religion, and yet, just as with Cora, he too seeks knowledge from the fortune teller, a sly choice in writing that reveals nothing is for certain and nothing lasts forever.  

As the ghosts, both past and present, converge in the final, bloody act, everything glides together in a series of surprising choices.  There could have been gunshots, and fight sequences, but staying true to purpose, the elements are locked into place with almost a whisper. Longtime co-conspirator Anthony Gutierrez once again brings his harsh romanticism to the cinematography, using breathtaking wide shots to frame the beauty of a world undone by brutality and hatred before pitching the viewer directly into harm’s way with uncomfortable under-angled shots of the principals and desperate, feverish dream sequences of memories best forgotten, but impossible to escape.  Jeff Hamm's editing once again reflects an almost ethereal understanding of the pacing, using natural blocks and transitions to ease Porter through his personal Paradise Lost.  

Coming soon to streaming and disc, Buckskin is a triumph of bereavement.  This is a somber affair, a dirge of the realities of adulthood amidst an almost timeless place in the mind's eye of a country that continues to tear itself apart.  Quiet, restrained, and naturally beautiful, this is a ghost story in reverse that will shock, endear, and most importantly, intrigue anyone who experiences it. 

--Kyle Jonathan