Monday, July 23, 2012

Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Hell on Wheels tells the epic story of post-Civil War America, focusing on a soldier who sets out to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who have killed his wife.  His journey takes him west to Hell on Wheels, a dangerous, raucous, lawless melting pot of a town that travels with and services the construction of the railroad, an engineering feat unprecedented for its time. The lavishly-produced series documents the railroad’s engineering and construction, as well as institutionalized greed and corruption, the immigrant experience and the plight of newly emancipated African-Americans during Reconstruction.  Chronicling this potent turning point in our nation’s history, this fan favorite series shows just how uncivilized the business of civilization can be across 10 absorbing episodes.

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

“Hell on Wheels” takes place not long after the end of the Civil War and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves.  It’s a period of reconstruction and men from both sides of the war are now forced to work together to rebuild the country with the nation’s top project being the transcontinental railroad that is to be built to connect the two coasts.  However, not every man is involved in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, as former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is on a bloody mission of revenge.
Cullen’s wife and son were tortured and killed by a group of Union soldiers and he’s determined to make each one of them pay.  The show opens with Cullen impersonating a priest in a confessional before killing the confessor who was in the process of confessing the murders that Cullen has come to kill him for.  With Cullen killing the man in the church in front of witnesses, the show sets a tone right away and establishes the ruthlessness of the character.  The trail to the other Union soldiers leads Cullen west where he joins up with Union Pacific to be a work boss as a cover to allow him to discover where his other targets may be.
Cullen is put in charge of a group of freed slaves that for all intents and purposes are still slaves due to their treatment and the difficulty of their task.  The nominal leader for these men is a man named Elam Ferguson (Common) whose instant hatred towards Cullen only intensifies when the foreman (Ted Levine) tells them that Cullen was a slave owner. The man in charge of the railroad expansion is called Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) whose completely unethical, ruthless, and tyrannical ways have ensured that life isn’t easy for the railroad workers who are forced to work long hot shifts without water.  Durant’s iron fisted enforcer is a man known as “The Swede” (Christopher Heyerdahl) who is as vicious and greedy as they come.  It’s not long before Cullen and The Swede come into conflict which was my main enjoyment of the show.
There’s a multitude of other characters too including a lovely surveyor’s widow named Lily (Dominique McElligott), who not only witnessed her husband’s murder by Indians, but avenged it as well by killing the Indian herself.  The maps that Lily takes from her dead husband are worth a fortune to Durant since it shows the only safe path through the Rockies for the railroad.   There’s also a preacher named Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) who sets up a tent in Hell on Wheels with his protege Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), an Indian in the process of converting to Christianity. There’s also a pair of Irish brothers named Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) who have brought their entrepreneurial spirit to the camp in the hopes of making some good money.  Another resident is the prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy) who ends up courting trouble when she starts seeing Elam.
The show, which feels like it’s striving for a “Deadwood” feel ends up carving it’s own place in the western genre.  The writing for the show is excellent, with well written characters that each have their own flaws, codes, and opinions which often clash with each other.  Anson Mount does a nice job as Cullen and he capably shows Cullen’s ruthless streak as well as his moral code that stops him from scalping dead Indians despite the sizable reward money. Common is also great in his role as Elam and his arc from the start to the finish may be the most expansive of all of the characters.  We see his hatred towards Cullen change over time to the point where they grudgingly respect each other.  We also see just how far Elam is willing to go to gain money and respectability, when he crosses a line that Cullen is incapable of doing himself due to his code.
Meaney attacks his role with relish and does a nice job of portraying a terrible person whose flaws may bring about his own undoing.  Tom Noonan’s  reverend role takes a twist that some may not see coming, but for those aware of Mr. Noonan’s past roles, it didn’t surprise me.  Wes Studi appears in several episodes as Chief Many Horses and brings a sense of nobility and gravitas to his role.  The rest of the cast is also excellent in their roles, but special mention must be given to Heyerdahl as the Swede who steals the show with his amazing portrayal.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see his career take off after this role.  While the ending of the season seemed somewhat anti-climactic to me after all the build up, it is still an excellent show and one that I would recommend to anyone that likes westerns and ambiguity since there are no absolute good guys or bad guys in “Hell on Wheels”.  There’s only many shades of grey to be found.

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Entertainment One has offered us an extremely sharp 1080p (1.78:1) transfer that really captures the look and feel of the desperate town of Hell on Wheels.  Detail is very sharp as it offers an abundance of crisp imagery that brings it all to life in front of you.  Faces, clothes, and even the wide varieties of environments all look laser sharp and very realistic.  Colors are on display too much in this show as it for the most it has a dusty drab looking palette, but when color comes into play it looks great.  Flesh tones are natural looking even with all of the dirt covering most of them. Black levels are strong and solid and contrast is excellent.  This is a stellar transfer that will make many fans happy when they see it.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season has two mixes available, a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and an regular lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.  I chose to listen to the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and I wasn’t disappointed at all.  This is a very active mix that utilizes every channel well and it keeps the viewer engrossed in the action taking place onscreen.  The front channels nicely deliver the clear dialogue while the rear channels dole out the ambiance and surround activity with pinpoint accuracy.   The regular 5.1 mix also sounds good but I recommend sticking with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix as it delivers the audio experience the best.

Extras (4 out of 5 stars) 

While I would have liked some audio commentaries on this set, I have to admit that the extras included here are all top notch and expansive.  As an added bonus, they are all in high definition too.
  • Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels – A look behind the scenes that features a lot of the production crew talking about the making of the show as well as Director/Executive Producer David Von Ancken and Production Designer John Blackie who also share their thoughts.  We see a lot of footage of the effort it took to build Hell on Wheels and it’s rare that we hear from the production crew at all.
  • Crashing a Train: From Concept to Camera – We see what’s involved with one sequence and all of the planning and work it takes to pull it off.
  • Making of Featurettes – We get seven short featurettes that add up to over half an hour of footage which includes: “About Hell on Wheels”, “The Guns”, “The Wardrobe”, “The Meaning of the Railroad”, “Building the Train”, “Locations and Sets”, and “Dirty Medicine”.  Each department takes a turn covering their aspect of the production and it’s all very interesting to watch.
  • Character Featurettes – We get brief looks at each of the main characters that includes Cullen Bohannon, Elam Ferguson, Thomas Durant, Lily Bell, The McGinnes Brothers, Pawnee Killer and Joseph Black Moon.  We also hear from the actors who play them talk about their character and how they fit in the world.
  • Episode Featurettes – If all of the previous extras didn’t give you enough information, then these featurettes that last almost an hour, gives even more info on an episode by episode basis for: the Pilot; Immoral Mathematics; A New Birth of Freedom; Jamais Je ne T’Oublierai; Bread and Circuses; Pride, Pomp and Circumstance; Revelations; Derailed; Timshel; and God of Chaos.  There’s a lot of good information here so I recommend watching it.
  • Behind the Scenes Footage – Almost thirty minutes of fly on the wall background filming of some actual shooting of the show.  It’s kind of interesting but most people will skip this one.
  • Trailer

Summary (4 out of 5 stars) 

There’s not too many westerns around anymore, let alone quality ones like “Deadwood” or “Hell on Wheels.”  This show has a great cast who seem to already have a handle on their characters right off the bat and some interesting story-lines that blend actual history with fictional events much like “Deadwood” did.  While I don’t think this show matches the intricacy and richness of “Deadwood’s” scripts, it is a great show and I enjoyed it a lot.  ”Hell on Wheels” has already been renewed for a second season, so I will be happy to ride with Cullen and company once more.
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