Eighteen years is a long prison stretch for killing someone in a fair gun duel, especially when the other party had been goading the unassuming but lethal Juan Sáyago for months. Of course, nobody ever said the Old West was fair, on either side of the border. The revolvers, horses, and saloons don’t lie—this is a western, but it happens to be a decidedly revisionist western, co-written by Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. Sáyago has done his time, but his past won’t stay buried in Arturo Ripstein’s Time to Die (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Sáyago has returned home, but his old life is long gone. His mother is dead, his house is in ruins, and his intended, Mariana Sampedro was married and widowed in the time he was away. Technically, she is available again, but it is not practical for Sáyago to think that way about the bereaved mother of a small boy, at least not while the Trueba Brothers are out for revenge.
Their father had it coming, so Sáyago eventually gave it to him, but that is not how the Truebas see it. Eventually, the old timers start to talk some sense into the younger Pedro Trueba. He has a fiancée of his own he would like to start a life with, but his older brother Julián is a hard case.
Sounds like a classic Anthony Mann western, doesn’t it? For some reason, critics try not to use the “W” word to discuss Time to Die, using terms like “revenge drama” or “contemplation of machismo.” It is certainly both those things, as are many other westerns. Reportedly, Fuentes’ role was to Mexicanize García Márquez’s dialogue, but in terms of themes and characters, Time to Die is not so very different from classic brooding Hollywood westerns like High Noon and The Searchers. Yet, that is exactly the strength of Ripstein’s western. It is lean and mean and universal and archetypally elemental.
Jorge Martínez de Hoyos is terrific as Sáyago. He is either the schlubbiest hardnose or the steeliest sad sack ever. Mexican Golden Age movie star Marga López is wonderful tragic, but elegant as the widow who mourns more for the loss of her life with Sáyago. However, it is Enrique Rocha and Alfredo Leal who really give the film its electric intensity as the vengeance-warped Brothers Trueba.