"War and me took to each other real well."
So says Jonah Hex, an embittered ex-Confederate soldier turned bounty-hunting mercenary. And from that point on in this Western, actioner, comic book mash-up, virtually everything Hex does proves that point.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Hex killed Confederate Gen. Quentin Turnbull's son Jeb during the Civil War, something Turnbull has no intention of forgiving. In fact, brutal revenge is the only thing on his mind. Soon, Turnbull ties Hex to a cross and sets fire to his cabin—with his wife and son inside—making Hex watch his loved ones burn to death. Then Turnbull brands his initials, QT, into Hex's right cheek, sneeringly telling the man that every time he looks in a mirror for the rest of his life, he'll be forced to recall his tormentor.
It's 1876, and Turnbull—who was allegedly killed before Hex could take care of that job himself—turns up as a terrorist determined to destroy the United States' government during the nation's centennial celebration. When word gets out that Turnbull is plotting to decimate Washington, D.C., with a futuristic weapon of mass destruction, President Ulysses S. Grant recruits the only man he thinks can take Turnbull out: Jonah Hex.
Hex agrees to help, but not because of patriotism or concern for the common man. All he wants in life is to see Turnbull suffer even more than he has. His sole friend—not counting his dog and his horse—is a Derringer-toting, dagger-under-the-garter prostitute named Lilah, who joins forces with him to find Turnbull.
Based on a DC Comics character, Jonah Hex is said to have the fate of the country resting on his shoulders.
Let's hope not.
We see Hex as a loving, attentive and tender husband and father. And though he spares no one he believes deserves punishment, isolated gestures indicate that he has some semblance of an honor code. When he shoots an antagonist who falls out of a window, for instance, he offers the bartender a coin to pay for the damage. And he has nothing but contempt for a group of corrupt lawmen. "They was wearing badges," he tells Lilah, "but not one of them was no lawman."
Eventually we learn the details behind Hex's shooting of Jeb Turnbull. When Gen. Turnbull ordered Jeb and Jonah's unit to burn down an enemy hospital—with people in it—Jonah refused. Jeb drew on Jonah in an attempt to get Jonah to obey the order … and Jonah shot him. They two were best friends, and Jonah apologizes at one point for killing his friend.
It's also implied that Hex supports freedom for African-American slaves, and we see one such character and his family's gratefulness for their freedom.
Jonah has the ability to momentarily revive corpses with his touch. He then speaks to them, and they're able to give him information about the location of folks who are still alive. And he can bring these dead bodies back at any time, it seems. He exhumes Jeb's body after six years in the grave, for example, to try to get information about Turnbull's whereabouts. If the dead fail to cooperate, Hex has the torture-like ability to cause their decaying bodies to burn, and they feel the pain of it.
As for the film's spiritual worldview, it's murky at best. The story never goes into detail about where the dead actually are, but it seems to be an underworld of sorts that's neither heaven nor hell … but closer to the latter. (Hex tells one character that the sounds he hears are the hellhounds that are coming for him.) When he's revived, Jeb warns Hex not to die, because the denizens of the underworld apparently have cruel plans for him.
Early on, we hear that Hex was rehabilitated by a group of Crow Indians after he was branded by Turnbull. A mystical healing ceremony later in the movie shows (presumably) the same people reviving Hex again after he's been shot. The ceremony involves the Crow smoking pipes, blowing smoke at him and chanting, after which a half-dead Jonah inhales and exhales that smoke. His eyes glow green and a third ghostly eye appears in his mouth before a crow exits his throat, perhaps suggesting its spirit has entered him via the Crow tribe.
Grant uses the word magic to describe Hex, but Jonah calls himself cursed.
It's implied that Lilah regularly turns tricks, and she dismissively calls sex a "transaction." Her primary wardrobe is a very low-cut negligee, garter belts, stockings, a corset and a bustle—sans dress. At one point, she suggests that men groped her while searching her for weapons, and she says that Jonah would have done the same in a similar situation.
Lilah and Jonah kiss in bed, and it's implied that they've had sex. She's draped in a sheet, her shoulders exposed, and he's shirtless as she kisses the scars on his chest. Lilah longs for a real relationship with Jonah instead of just sporadic trysts whenever he happens to show up. But he resists, he says, because he doesn't want Lilah to be hurt or killed by someone trying to get to him.
A regular "customer" harasses Lilah at one point, saying he'll have his way with her, and saying that he owns her. She kills him.
About half of this 82-minute film is composed of violent scenes. Though we rarely see graphic kill shots, mayhem and destruction are the names of the game here.
In an early scene, for example, Hex drags three bodies (and one head in a bloody bag) into a town to collect a bounty from the local sheriff. He soon discovers he's wandered into a well-planned ambush, and he proceeds to kill his eight armed assailants … and then set most of the town on fire for no apparent reason.
And that's just the beginning. Men's heads get kicked, hit with weapons and bashed against walls. Hex kills a man by thrusting him into a dry-docked boat's whirling propeller blade. (We see the body in a pool of blood.) Train cars carrying soldiers, women and children detonate into balls of fire when Turnbull attacks.
A town and all of its inhabitants are annihilated by Turnbull's high-tech munitions. Two ships (filled with unseen sailors) explode in a harbor. A man gets electrocuted and falls from an electrical pole he's working on (a scene played for humor). Another man falls from a roof after being shot, and one more is choked with a chain.
On and on it goes. Several people—and one man's face—end up on the receiving end of hatchets. Hex supernaturally shatters a burning corpse. Turnbull shoots a man point-blank in the back of the skull and fires a bullet into another man's head even after he begged for mercy. (Both acts take place out of the frame; we hear the gunshots.)
A gladiatorial fighting ring of sorts is surrounded by bloodthirsty men betting on a to-the-death bout between a giant man and a bald, almost demonic snake-like opponent whose saliva is acidic. Hex eventually burns down the entire edifice and everyone trapped within it. We see Hex's wife choked and held hostage by Turnbull's men. One of Lilah's "clients" slaps her face and pulls her by the hair. Hex gets shot several times and is shown bloodied and dying. Two corpses are seen, one greatly decomposed and freshly dug up from a grave.
Lilah and Jonah viciously kill numerous guards as they escape from Turnbull's clutches. Several men catch on fire, and at one point Jonah's hand does too. Another villain meets his demise when he's trapped in machinery that mangles his body (offscreen).
If all that isn't enough, we're also forced to watch as Hex heats up an axe blade, then lifts it to his scarred face in an attempt to "delete" the initials "QT." We don't see contact, but what's implied is still quite unsettling.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is misused once, and Jesus' is abused three times. We hear one s-word and at least 10 uses of "h‑‑‑." "B‑‑tard" is used a half-dozen times, "a‑‑hole" three or four times. Other language includes "bloody" and a crude reference to the male anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several times we see characters knocking down mixed drinks. In one such scene, more of Hex's drink dribbles out of the hole in his cheek than actually goes down his throat. Turnbull throws a drink into a man's face.
Other Negative Elements
Turnbull exhibits utter contempt for the government. And he believes that the government can be destabilized by terrorizing its citizenry. Instill enough fear into people, he says, "and they'll tear down the government that's supposed to protect them."
In his quest to build a superweapon, Turnbull steals government cannons, machinery and ammunition at the expense of people's lives. He also refuses to save innocents when he's in authority during the war.
As for Hex's loyalties, we learn that the only reason he sided with the Confederates was because he didn't want anyone to be in charge of him … an anarchic philosophy that's patently ridiculous upon closer inspection. When Grant eventually offers Hex a job as something like "America's Sheriff," Hex spouts a similar antiestablishment line.
The bloodthirsty drive for retribution is the sole plotline in this threadbare story. It fuels every move Hex and Turnbull make. And as wave after wave after wave of violence washed over me in the theater, I wondered what audiences are attracted to in the grim theme of vengeance.
Is it our own mortality and fallibility that make us pay to see larger-than-life characters like Jonah Hex? Do we wish we had his preternatural abilities and renegade spirit so we could escape our desk jobs—or punish the bully who once tormented us? Do we ourselves seek revenge? And are we so unforgiving that we enjoy vicariously watching bad guys "get theirs"?
The filmmakers apparently consider Jonah Hex's uncanny ability to stay alive and his penchant for brutally exacting revenge exciting and commendable. This antihero's deadly spite, cynicism and hatred, however, are definitely not qualities worth aspiring to.
The movie's production notes state, "Jonah Hex is an epic action adventure about one man's personal quest for redemption against the canvas of the battle between good and evil." The problem with this statement is the fact that Hex isn't looking for anything even close to redemption. He merely wants his enemies to suffer.
He is so driven by his vendetta against Turnbull, in fact, that he says even in death, vengeance is the one thing you can't let go of. And believe me, he should know. So it's actually Jeb who hits the mark when he says that his father and Jonah are "two men bent on murdering folks to make the pain go away."
"Living like that," Jeb continues in one of the movie's precious few moments of moral clarity, is a "lot like being damned."