Suffering through the harsh and unforgiving environment of early winter in 1879 Montana, a family of settlers takes to the Oregon Trail, moving from their mountain home to avoid the unmerciful weather in a nearby valley. While tracking a deer around their campsite, Tobias (Lukas Jann), the teenage son, comes upon an unsightly scene of overturned wagons, mutilated corpses, and a half-dead woman pinned to a plank in a crucifying manor. Pa (Southbound’s Mather Zickel) and Tobias rescue the woman, Cassidy (Love & Death’s Olivia Grace Applegate), bringing her back to their camp and nursing her back to health, but no good deed goes unpunished as a gang of roving bandits descends upon their camp and slaying three-quarters of the family to take back the rescued woman they’ve laid claim to, leaving only the daughter, Abigale (Orphan Black’s Zoé De Grand’Maison) alive for nefarious reasons.
Abigale’s journey through the rugged terrain of snow-covered landscapes becomes more harrowing as she makes a dangerous escape and winds up in the care of a local rancher (Jigsaw’s Clé Bennett) and his pregnant wife (Ozark’s Jessica Frances Dukes). Her recovery doesn’t take long, and she decides to go on the offensive to rescue the one remaining part of her family: their horse.
For a good portion of the beginning of Organ Trail, the viewer follows Tobias as the central POV character. He’s the first human voice we hear and face we see, approaching the horse in the stable as the family rushes to finish packing and head down the mountain. His father teaches him how to load a gun and presses responsibilities upon him in a gender-biased effort to teach him how to be a man. Abigale’s character doesn’t become more pronounced until after her family is slaughtered, her mother (General Hospital’s Lisa LoCicero) not seeing any reason for her to learn such things, sticking to the homemaking aspects of women of the time, despite the environment being much more unforgiving than the decorum of any civilization they could have possibly traveled from. Fortunately, Abigale is always observing her father’s lessons, which comes in handy when she must survive without the men in her family to protect and shield her from harm.
The group of black hats that abscond with Abigale and Cassidy are a wiry bunch. True Blood’s Sam Trammel leads the pack as a witty villain sporting state-of-the-art sidearms and a ne’er do care attitude, while his posse range from meek to vicious. The script’s three bears technique makes it easy to follow the character shift, with Felix (No One Gets Out Alive’s Alejandro Akara) representing the empathetic, inexperienced baby of the group, Brody (The Dark and the Wicked’s Michael Abbott Jr.) poised as the chain-of-command-following evenly-tempered character, and Rhys (Creepshow’s Nicholas Logan) assuming the ruthless and literally unfeeling killer in the group. This opposing familial parallel creates a dire response to Abigaile’s need to escape, and as the group’s dynamics start to unbalance, a challenge to the power structure therein.
There’s genuinely a lot to like about the aesthetic of the film. The captivating landscapes make Joe Kessler’s cinematography nearly effortless. However, I often think the colorization could be a touch colder or grayer at times to elevate the dread-driven bleakness of Abigaile and her family’s circumstances. Nitpicks aside, the wide shots of the film are outwardly stunning, demonstrating the isolative characteristics of the terrain through the polarizing cruelness and beauty of nature.
Performances in Organ Trail are also generally likable, with Zoé De Grand’Maison and Olivia Grace Applegate imbuing their characters with the inherent detail that they are not damsels by any means but, instead, kickass pioneer trailblazers who can hold their own and deal a fair amount of frontier justice. Clé Bennett, whom I’ve long been a fan of thanks to his roles in Homeland, The Expanse, and Man in the High Castle, brings a fantastic amount of depth to his role as well as Erik, the rancher who goes out looking for his horse and finds himself in the middle of the dispute between the bandits and Abigaile. Finally, Logan’s portrayal of Rhys’ savagery is a highlight. You hate Rhys from the start, and his loathsome nature makes for a fun showdown between the good guys and the bad guys in the finale.
Writer Megan Turner designed Organ Trail’s bold and creative script to put frontier women into the white hat, cowgirl role through a brutal display of patriarchal and environmental cruelty. Aspects of the film achieve that, particularly the actors’ efforts, while the makeup and costume design team construct a look of realism in death, disease, and infection along the Oregon Trail. However, with all these great qualities, there’s just something lacking in a film with so much going for it.
The horror-western is a tough nut to crack, but since 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, there have been many attempts at the genre, especially in the indie-sphere. Blackwood, Ghosts of the Ozarks, The Wasteland, and The Wind are just a few that come to mind. If you haven’t heard of some of these titles, it isn’t because their premises aren’t good, but, with some exception to The Wind here, somewhere between the story and the implementation, things go awry and, stylistically speaking, all of the films share a standard, new age western look. Add in some unspoken rule that Westerns should be slow-paced, and that’s where Organ Trail suffers. Michael Patrick Jann still does an adequate job directing. Still, his almost exclusive comedic background directing 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous and countless comedic television shows may be why the film rarely carries any atmosphere.
Jann’s back catalog of credits includes Reno 911! and MTV’s The State, which he also acted on. This explains the presence of an apprehensive bartender, played by Thomas Lennon, and Lisa LoCicero, who was also a regular on the show as reporter Maria Storm. Directing comedy and directing a moody thriller are not the same, and that is where Organ Trail loses the most points. Regardless, Organ Trail is still a horror-western worth the watch, full of surprising moments and exciting twists, but with a different approach, Turner’s script could have amazed.
Organ Trail will be available to purchase digitally on May 12.