Annabelle Angel (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a big-city reporter venturing out into frontier territory to illuminate a way of life that’s foreign to her readers. Arriving in the titular outpost of Apache Junction, Arizona, Annabelle quickly learns that the town’s reputation as a safe haven for outlaws doesn’t paint the whole picture. The local army regiment led by Captain Hensley (Trace Adkins) - dispatched years ago to control the chaos - turns a blind eye to crime in exchange for profit, which has fomented a widespread apathy towards black and white morality in the face of people’s struggle to survive.
APACHE JUNCTION sees Lee experiment with the Revisionist Western subgenre, contrasting the more traditional, ‘good guy catches bad guys’ narrative of Badland with a slower and ensemble-driven approach. The other members of the main cast: local bar owner Al (Thomas Jane), prostitute Mary (Danielle Gross) and infamous outlaw Jericho Ford (Stuart Townsend), each provide a different perspective to the idea of hardship wearing one down; it’s difficult to follow the rules when they go against your own self-interest, and the people around you have given up anyway.
Overall, the film tends to tell without showing when it comes to this idea, but it shines in one early scene of Jericho and another man fighting in Al’s bar as a crowd watches and gambles. During my first viewing I found it jarring without knowing exactly why beyond there being no music and the tone feeling muddled. However, once the fight is over the viewer discovers that Al always fixes the outcome, and the pieces click into place: the whole sequence is designed to remind viewers of a raucous Wild West bar brawl but ultimately feel disingenuous. Similarly, when Jericho finds himself pursued by Captain Hensley, Al is quick to put his desire to stay alive ahead of his years of camaraderie with the former, not so much choosing a side as doing the bare minimum to acquiesce to each man.
It’s clear that Jericho, Mary and Al are intended to serve as foils for one another, with each being at different points on the scale between a classic Western hero and villain. Unfortunately, APACHE JUNCTION is simply too short to fully elaborate on this, I suspect since it also has to juggle Annabelle’s audience surrogate perspective. As mentioned above, the result is that details such as how Jericho’s oft-mentioned criminal past compares to the good deeds we see here are left frustratingly unclear, merely alluded to in conversation between characters. Using the Jericho example, have his motivations changed over time? I don’t know, but I would’ve liked to.
Nevertheless, APACHE JUNCTION’s cast make the most of the material, delivering consistently engaging performances on par with Badland’s memorable ensemble. Taylor-Compton is perfectly endearing as the fish out of water Annabelle, who always wants to believe the best in her new acquaintances despite her surroundings. Gross is pitch-perfect in some of the film’s most thoughtful (and pivotal) moments as she reveals Mary’s yearning for a new beginning. Townsend brings such a world-weariness to Jericho that it made me even more interested in learning about the character’s history. And finally, Adkins imbues Hensley with a deviousness that steals every one of his short scenes. Coupled with Lee’s admirable (if uneven) genre experimentation, these actors make APACHE JUNCTION an easy recommendation for any Western fan.