A card sharp with an improbable amount of luck and a wandering traveler named Bill meet in the middle of the desert. They meet to duel over slander and accusations -- at least on the surface. The card player is erudite, gentlemanly and well-spoken in demeanor; the traveler is dirty, bedraggled and seemingly down on his luck.
But Bill has something up his sleeve, something more than an extra ace. He has a magical rabbit's foot that confers incredible luck and good fortune to anyone who possesses it and allows him to escape the showdown unscathed. But when he encounters a prospector caught between a literal rock and hard place, that luck may have just run out.
Written and directed by Magnus McCullagh and Charlie Brafman this drama luxuriates in the mythology and ethos of the Old West, with its merciless frontier morality, elegantly expansive cinematography and a script that spins a layered, picaresque yarn with panache and dry humor. Guided by a sly, ironic voiceover and told with an unhurried wryness, it nevertheless builds suspense over how the luck of the rabbit's foot will hold -- or even if it's luck at all.
The Coen Brothers and Tarantino -- along with the great Westerns of filmmakers like Sergio Leon -- are obvious antecedents to the storytelling, with its pulp-like cinematic flourishes mixed with violence and dark humor. There's even an animated interlude delving into the mythology of the titular magical object at the story's center that "Kill Bill" fans will enjoy.
But there's something more mythological in the storytelling than just a pastiche of genres, conventions and movie tropes. The characters are less individuals than archetypes, and with the sweeping scope of the narrative, we don't get the chance to learn much about them individually. But they're all connected by the relentless, hard-scrabble need to survive in a harsh, unforgiving land. And their fates are also entangled by the magical talisman, which exerts a strange power over these men's lives. With every uncanny reveal, the humble object acquires more fascination, enough to propel us into its next chapter of what becomes a darkly compelling fable about fate, luck and happenstance -- and make us wonder what it will cause to befall its next owner.
Though handsomely appointed in look and feel and with a pacing that is almost stately in its laconic rhythm, "The Rabbit's Foot" is nevertheless brutal and compelling to watch, a riff on the Western that feels old-timey but never nostalgic. It has a trickster's sense of dark wit at the inexorable violence of the Old West, full of thieves, murderers and opportunists scrabbling for money. A sign of ravaged, mutilated nature holds the key to dominance in this pitiless land. But as it leaves a trail of bodies in its feckless, fickle wake, one might wonder if it's less luck and more vengeance.