Yes, you’ve heard it’s bad. It is. But there are some things to like in The Dark Tower, the new adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel series, directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Just as in the books, an evil sorcerer named the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) orders around his henchpeople — actually rat people — who must don human skin suits to travel around Keystone Earth undetected. (Yes, this is dense; please stick with me.) In the film, all of these henchrats choose white skin. This simply happens, and the film makes no comment on it. But the white skins make a perverse sense. Whiteness gives them easier access to everything on Earth, especially the children they have to kidnap. (They take special ones with a strong telepathic “shine” that the Man in Black can use to power a weapon that’ll blast the Dark Tower and release evil into the world). When they come to take away our boy-hero Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), I wondered why Jake’s mom willingly releases her son, but then realized, “Their white faces are that trustworthy to her!”
We’re also introduced to a Mid-World village of seers — folks in whom the shine is strong — who are good and kind. These villagers are a diverse mix of Asian, black, Arab, Native, Latinx and white. I know that most people who go in to see this film will be focused on the drab, colorless imagery of the tower and the browns and grays that give this picture a suffocatingly dull sepia hue, and the boring special effects and the more boring story. But I’m telling you there are actual upsides here, and they all have to do with the casting, courtesy of casting directors Marisol Roncali and Mary Vernieu, the duo who also are likely responsible for making Zazie Beetz the new Domino in the upcoming Deadpool 2.
When news broke that Idris Elba would play Gunslinger Roland Deschain, some mega-fans of the King series took to message boards to voice their frustration at a black actor being cast in the role of a Clint Eastwood–type Western hero who traverses the Mid-World to protect the Dark Tower (thereby protecting the world from evil forces). “Now they’re gonna make the whole thing PC!” these fans yelped as they wept into their scuzzy keyboards. Maybe I’ll regret pointing out the subtext of the diverse casting in this review, because these fans likely wouldn’t have noticed it at all — in this fantasy world, there simply is no ubiquitous skin tone. The surface story and its aims don’t actually change at all from the books. And the only time a person’s looks are acknowledged on screen is when the Man in Black tells his main henchrat Tirana (Abbey Lee) that he admires the milky-white hot-lady skins s/he chose, because a pretty face can open the world’s doors.
But aside from my being delighted that this fantasy world was properly diverse, I was also delighted that every actor is perfect for their role. Elba’s deadpan never fails to inspire a laugh. When Jake and the Gunslinger return to Keystone Earth, Jake offers him a hot dog, and the Gunslinger accepts it, but mutters, “Savages. What breed is it?” Given to a less skilled performer, this dialogue might jar us out of the dramatic tension, but Elba isn’t a ham; he performs every line as though he’s in the most serious of Westerns.
McConaughey is a nightmare — in a good way. His ultra-smooth skin and jagged bone structure imbue every close-up with the potential for jeopardy. I never thought that Johnny Cash cosplay could be scary, but McConaughey’s really opening new doors of terror with this look. Meanwhile, Taylor’s performance is simultaneously mature and full of curiosity, calling to mind a Goonies-era Sean Astin or a young River Phoenix. There’s a timelessness to Taylor — his fresh face wouldn’t seem out of place in the 1950s or 1980s.
But I’m all out of good things now. Outside of its actors, the film is unremarkable. Action sequences seem as though they were hurried, that is, when you can actually see them — Did the lighting team blow a fuse? The characters have no time to establish emotional connections because Arcel’s moving the picture along too quickly. And our Gunslinger hero is tasked with delivering the line, “I kill with my heart,” which I know is in the book, but which is nonetheless the kind of rhetoric we might get from an NRA ad. Still, if King’s series were adapted into a multiseason TV series, it may actually have a chance at being good, especially if the producers kept this same cast but ditched the director and cinematographer.