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Purgatory

Amelia Heinle as Rose in Purgatory on the Dingus Project  at SeacoastNH.comTHE DINGUS PROJECT
Jesse James in Film #14

Who says made-for-TV movies have to be bad? This science fiction/western is among the most popular in the Jesse James canon, although he scarcely appears. "You gotta see Purgatory," people kept telling us, when they heard about the Dingus Project. So we did, and it’s now among our favorites too.

Purgatory (1999)

Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Randy Quaid, Donnie Wahlberg, JD Souther
94 minutes, Turner Original Films 

"It’s not your ordinary damned Western."
Turner Network marketing slogan

Purgatory on the Dingus ProjectPurgatory plays like an extended Twilight Zone episode only without the opening words of Rod Serling. It begins in the middle of a Jesse James-style bank holdup. The Blackjack Britton gang (under leader Eric Roberts) gets shot up badly during a brutal robbery. Viewers learn quickly that Blackjack is the baddest of the bad. He can’t even spare a bullet to put his dying brother out of his misery. That job falls to Leo "Sonny" Dillard (played by Brad Rowe) who, as the youngest member of the gang, is everyone’s whipping boy. Sonny’s romantic view of the West comes from his collection of dime novels filled with "heroic" outlaws like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickock. In the fray at the bank, Sonny sees the famous Dolly Sloane killed in the crossfire. "Don’t let me die," she says, cradled in his arms, and then dies. Now, pursued by a large posse, the Blackjack Gang is driven into the desert.

Lost in a sandstorm, the bad guys head for Mexico and end up in a sleepy town called Refuge where everyone is super good. The drinks and hotel are free, but cursing is not allowed. Not even the sheriff and deputy (Sam Shepard and Donnie Wahlberg) carry guns. After sizing up the pacifist townsfolk – which takes up most of the film – the Blackjack Gang decide to take over the place. Bad idea. The town is protected by a mysterious power called up by an Indian shaman who can change weather and direct lightning bolts.

Dingus

By now, of course, Sonny has figured the whole thing out. Using his knowledge of dime novels, he realizes that all the townspeople are former outlaws who have been brought back from the dead and given one last chance to make amends. Holiday, Hickock, James, Billy the Kid – they’re all here. The formerly dead Dolly Sloane shows up on the next celestial stagecoach. By doing good deeds and not resorting to violence for 10 years, each soul gets to go to heaven. Those who cannot resist and use violence, even in their own defense, are whisked off screaming into Hell, a la a scene right out of Ghost. Sonny, also, has fallen in love with a woman named Rose (Amelia Heinle), who is already dead, having committed some heinous act in her youth.

It all comes together when the sheriff, aka Wild Bill Hickcock, has to decide whether to defend Refuge against the Blackjack Gang, or lay back and let his clock run out and be carried into the bosom of the Lord. Three guesses which way he goes during the shootout in the middle of the main street.

Curiously, this film is most similar to the Three Stooges western The Outlaws is Coming, in which all the bad guys in the Wild West end up in a single town. German born director Uli Edel plays the whole thing as a straight western, never for laughs. Eric Roberts, the bad guy, never knows what he is up against, although one senses that the outlaws-turned-heroes, are in on the cosmic joke.

In this case, Jesse James is played by singer / songwriter JD Souther, best known for penning the lyrics to the Eagles tune "Peaceful Easy Feeling". James is just one of the nonviolent townsfolk in this film, which is interesting. The real Jesse James often wished he could just blend into the woodwork and become an ordinary citizen. Like the citizens of Purgatory, he was forever drawn to violence. In reality, he had many opportunities to "go straight," but could not. Here, in film, he gets one last chance. This screenplay by Gordon T. Dawson won a number of awards.
 
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