Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
It's hard for me to judge this film without taking into account how huge it is that Idris Elba is Roland Deschain in a film adaptation of Stephen King's Dark Tower books. Like, for all the bad shit that has gone down lately in our world, this weird universe of bold-faced falsehoods we now find ourselves in, and for all the flaws this film has (that is, a pretty significant amount), the reality that Idris Elba is playing Roland, a character King originally based on Clint Eastwood's character in the Man With No Name trilogy - the whitest of white-ass dudes - is endlessly thrilling and wonderful to me. It's truly a dream come true to see that role transformed by an actor of color. Elba is an artist of rare talent and charisma, and Roland is made better and truer in his hands while remaining honest to the spirit of the character. What mattered to me when I sat down in the theater was that Idris would be given the space to make Roland his own. When the end credits rolled, I felt relief that I had the opportunity to see a black man in that role in my lifetime. Roland is the heart and soul of the Dark Tower universe, and Idris has done him justice here - Elba's Roland of Eld is a commanding and immediate hero of old, brimming with weary kindness, righteous anger, and royal majesty. I felt I would follow him literally anywhere on Keystone Earth, or anywhere on any world, utterly confident he could kick anyone's ass and live another day.
Everything else in the film, good and bad, is secondary to that triumph. I will say that I haven't finished the books (there are a bunch of them, and they are long, and King's bibliography is exhaustive, and I have a limited amount of time to read, therefore my progress is slow, but let's just say I'm mid-series as far as the novels go) as of this writing (that's August 2017), but from what I do know of King's magnum opus so far, I was okay with a lot of how it's portrayed in this film, though it definitely is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. The road to bringing The Dark Tower to the screen was notoriously long, so long in fact that it's kind of a miracle this film is even here at all, which I feel explains a lot of its issues. For one, there were clearly too many fingers in this pie; the more people you get involved in a project as complex as this one, the more splintered it becomes, echoes of too many different voices and styles apparent in every pick-up shot and bit of edited dialogue. Sony spent $6 million dollars on reshoots for this film after initial test screenings did poorly with audiences; I have no doubt this film is somewhat better for it, as apparently the main criticism was not enough of Roland (and I feel the end product still doesn't have enough of him, alas), but it definitely feels like a significant chunk of the film is missing. At a brisk hour and 35 minutes, there's a whole other half hour floating around somewhere in the void, a cut of the film I'd love to see to find out just what was changed and where and when.
I really liked Tom Taylor as Jake; he is likable and earnest, and he and Elba share good chemistry. There's too much time spent on him here, however, despite the fact that this film is clearly meant to be an opening chapter into a wider world - Elba's Roland is the soul of this creation, as I stated above, and spending too much time on any of the other characters feels off. Why they chose to splice the story the way they did here is something of a mystery; there are parts that are culled roughly from the first book in the series, and other bits of exposition yanked from here and there in consequent books, but there's a fair amount of stuff they just sort of mushed together like lumpy oatmeal, and it just doesn't really stick, especially as we get towards the end. The first book in the series deals almost exclusively with Roland wandering Mid-World alone, and serves as our introduction to him and the space he inhabits. I get that Idris Elba wandering around the desert for two hours would maybe not make for the most compelling cinema, but many of the choices they make here amount to so little sense that going for something more straightforward might have been the better option.
Nikolaj Arcel seems to be out of his depth in the directing chair with this project - I only know him from his period piece A Royal Affair, and he seems an odd choice for a fantasy Stephen King adaptation. I'm open to being corrected here, but it seems his personal vision wasn't strong enough to straighten out all the damage the long pre-production process had wreaked, and his lack of confidence is pretty glaring. He's lucky that the cast is made up of good character actors (Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Fran Kranz), though he rarely gives them anything to do - and why was Kranz's character dressed like he works a sub-par office job? Flannels and cardigans? I was just super puzzled whenever he was on screen. He's a great actor (I love him particularly as Marty in Cabin in the Woods), so why not give him something to do? Same with Haley and Lee. Thankfully Arra (Claudia Kim) is fleshed out a little more, and I feel we get to know her well enough to care about her. She's the only female character who really gets substantial time to be humanized - Jake's mom Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) falls short of transcending any nurturing stereotype.
There are some great comedic moments around the mid-way point, when Jake brings Roland to Earth. My audience was laughing heartily, and I thought those scenes were just charming. Elba's comedic timing in them is deadpan, and they once more showcase the great chemistry he and Taylor have with each other. I laughed out loud more than once, and I wanted more scenes like that, more chances for Roland and Jake to get to know each other and talk. For a little over an hour and a half, the film feels like it's on one of those conveyor belts at the airport - rushing us onward before we have our footing. The moments of interesting, well-written dialogue are too brief, and exhaustive scenes of spoken exposition too long. That being said, I feel Matthew McConaughey's singular Man in Black aka Walter O'Dim is going to be the most polarizing aspect of the film - but I was into it. He's sinister and drawling, but his self-satisfaction worked for me. Too often villains are conveyed as superhuman, beyond fallacy, but McConaughey gives him just the right amount of ridiculousness. I can see myself enjoying his performance every time I watch this in the future. It felt like he really made it his own. The final battle of the film between him and Roland falls pretty flat on McConaughey's end, mostly due to the direction apparently giving him nothing to do but wave his arms around and feign magical stuff, but Elba is electric anytime he is given the spotlight, pivoting and whirling his guns throughout the film like he's sword-fighting, the way I've always imagined Roland would.
One of the other big problems with the film is it can't seem to decide who its audience is - clearly the studio wanted the final product to be kid-friendly, as there's barely any profanity to speak of and relatively tame violence, resulting in a PG-13 rating, but the books are for adults (I mean, have you read a Stephen King book?) when all is said and done. King is interesting because he often includes characters who are children and young adults in his stories, but rarely would their subject matter be considered "child-friendly." I think most of us imagined that a film adaptation would be a little, well, bolder than this? With Hollywood venturing into R-rated territory with superhero narratives (like Logan and Deadpool, which were both financial successes), it seems logical that they would balk less at the idea of giving this more adult qualities if it meant it could be more faithful to the source material. But I guess Sony didn't get that memo, so things never really got pushed quite as far as they should from a narrative standpoint. The whole is just played too safe.
In the end, though, my thoughts keep circling back to Idris Elba's Roland Deschain. There's a small moment where we get to see him with his father Steven (Dennis Haysbert, a vastly underrated talent) that I wished had gone on. I found every moment Roland was on-screen just mesmerizing. Far be it from me to truly articulate what gives someone the "It" quality, but Elba has it, like a rose that blooms in a sea of thorns. The most upsetting thing about the film is the way it often seems to squander him, failing to recognize his luminous, piercing presence, unable to utilize him to drive the story to a more meaningful place. They had the subject matter (King's books), and they had their perfect Roland (Elba), so why couldn't they make a better product? In the end, there are so many things about a film that need to work cohesively to make it truly great, and the weight can't rest on one person's shoulders. Regardless of the faults of the script and direction (of which there are many), Roland remains himself amid a chaotic storm - and that's what I wanted from this film most of all. To me, Elba is the Gunslinger. Regardless of the fate of the rest of this franchise, if indeed it ever comes to be, I am grateful to have him in my mind's eye now, to see him in this story and imagine him in this world, knowing there was a space made for him to be Roland, and that he made it utterly his own.
P.S. I feel I have to mention this on a personal level. At the screener I attended, I was struck at one point by the fact that I was surrounded in the press area by white men of middling age. I will continue to do my part as a woman to contribute to film criticism, and be an ally to my POC and LGBTQ+ comrades in film criticism wherever and whenever I may be of service, but I long for a world where the group of critics I see at screeners is one from all walks of life. In a film where the protagonist role, which the writer originally envisioned as a white man, goes to a man of color (because he is the best man for the job - and he has King's blessing), we are doing something right. But that's the tip of the iceberg. We have a lot more work to do - not just with building projects of quality around POC and minority actors, but with including people from all backgrounds in all aspects of film creation and film commentary.