I haven’t read any of The Dark Tower novels by Stephen King. That’s not true, I’ve read The Gunslinger, but it’s been so long and my memory of it so spotty that we might as well count it as a wash. It’s fair to say that the series never really grabbed me.
So I wasn’t burdened with any of the years of anticipation and bated hopeful breaths that King’s fans were when the movie started. I’m well aware of the troubled history The Dark Tower has in trying to get into production. It’s a far cry from Terry Gilliam’s trek into the heart of the abyss that is Murphy’s Law, but it’s still notable for its seemingly unending series of obstacles.
The result? Nikolaj Arcel has made a movie that would feel right at home in the eighties; for good or bad. The young boy with visions of another world holding the key or in this case “the shine” that could save the world, or worlds, or universes. The lone hero with a tragic past who seems more at the end of his journey than the beginning. What are the odds that these two crazy kids will meet up through a series of random, but really destined, incidents, and form an unlikely bond? Cue music by White Snake.
The young boy, in this case, is Jake (Tom Taylor). A shy observant young man struggling with the death of his father. His mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) frets over him and tries to help him cope. She also has to defend him from his step-father Lon (Nicholas Pauling) who wishes to institutionalize Lucas.
Meanwhile, on Mid-Earth we have Roland (Idris Elba), the gunslinger. He roams the badlands of what appears to be a parallel Earth in search of vengeance against the man in black, Walter (Matthew McConaughey). Walter is a powerful wizard who has killed all the gunslingers except for Roland, a man who Walter’s magic it seems does not work on.
Then the two stories clash, and the worlds meet, and the adventure begins; sort of. The Dark Tower is never really boring but it also never really teases you with any of the grand connections. Oh sure you have moments where they talk about the ‘shine’ which is a reference to The Shining, but on the whole, it seems just to want to focus on Lucas and Roland.
Tom Taylor as Jake is fine. He has that style of acting which requires him to always appear one step away from needing a shower and nap. There are times where he is allowed some humor. When Roland identifies the man in black in his drawing as Walter, Jake nods. “Wait, his name is Walter?” When matched up against Elba you wish they would have spent a little more time looking for someone to hold his own.
Elba is as magnetic as ever. The role suits him and he the role. He brings a pathos and understanding to his character that outshines everyone else in the cast. His voice as he recites the gunslinger’s oath lends the lines a sort of poetic heart ache. Elba hits every note perfectly from the grim and dour, to the fish out of water bits when he goes to New York.
The movie’s biggest problem is it implies too much rather than explains. Not in such a way as to make the movie incapable of enjoyment. But in this way, it really does feel like something from the eighties in how it just goes along dropping what feels like huge revelations but without any time to deal with them or explore them. There’s no time we have the next action beat to get to.
McConaughey’s Walter is more caricature than character. But McConaughey allows his charm to fill in the gaps the script by committee left. He has a slick deep southern drawl as he slinks through New York and Mid World with a perpetual sideways grin on his face. He never phones it in, but he’s also never allowed to explore any possible depth to his character either.
The man in black feels like a staple b-movie villain with plans to destroy the tower….because then the monsters can get in. It’s never explained why a human wizard would want that, but whatever. Monsters bad, humans good, let’s stop Walter.
But in the end, as I’ve stated before, movies are about images. While the camera work by Rasmus Videbaek is never anything breathtaking, it is always competent. You are always aware of where the characters are in relation to each other, especially in the action scenes.
I think sometimes people interpret the idea of images too literally. While the movie itself never crosses into Bergman imagery, it does present a striking image. One not often seen in the over crowded landscape of action adventure/fantasy/superhero movies. The image of a black man as the gun-toting righteous avenger. The image of a black man as the hero and savior to all humanity.
The final action scene between Walter and Roland give us the image of an oily, smiling, charming white man with a deep southern accent; doing battle with a black man who has consistently defied him. Roland, the hero, the savior, the one dedicated to helping those in need, and defending the tower and all our safety; a black man.
Now you could argue the story is more Jake’s and less Roland’s. Or that in the end Lucas has to help Roland to defeat Walter and you would be right. But I would also point out that Walter and all his henchmen, the ‘skin wearers’ are white, whereas the majority of the people of Mid-Earth are PoC.
The Dark Tower isn’t perfect. The majority of its women don’t fare well, but unlike this year’s earlier War for the Planet of the Apes, they at least get a seat at the story table. As much as I found the visual of Roland versus Walter to be striking the movie can’t seem to land the emotional impact it’s going for. After the final battle, the music swelled, but I did not.
Much has been made about the ninety-five minute run time. So here I’ll just quote Ebert, “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.” The Dark Tower is good enough. Which may not be the high praise Stephen King fans are wanting to hear. But it’s fun and competent, and it won’t depress you with its awfulness.
Editor’s Note: Due to an IMDB error this review incorrectly noted the wrong actor and character. The mistake has been corrected and we apologize for the error.