★★.5 out of ★★★★★
In 2015, when Leatherface principal filming began, something must have been amiss in the cosmos. There was an imbalance. There were questions that needed answers. Primary among them: was Leatherface an enigmatic embodiment of evil, or was he a kind, gentle and thoughtful soul who was driven to madness, killing, and gore?
Thankfully, or not, filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo decided to get at the heart of this cosmos-altering question. But, just maybe the better question is whether Leatherface’s origin story even needed to be told in the first place? Or better yet, was Leatherface (2017) just a shrill and money-grubbing temptation that was too good to pass up? Or even better, does Leatherface’s origin story need its own origin story.
Leatherface begins sometime in the early 1950s with a birthday party for a young Jed Sawyer (AKA: Leatherface). A chainsaw is almost instantly forced on young Jed and he’s directed by his motherly Mom, Verna Sawyer (Lilly Taylor), to “handle” a local thief. Jed is not at all up for the task and it’s clear from the beginning that there’s a moral ambiguity that clouds his family, and most certainly little Jed. Not long after his initial crisis of confidence, he lures a young couple to a dilapidated barn and whammo…they too fall victim to the evils of the Sawyer family. The sadistic and cruel town sheriff, Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff), is dispatched to the scene of the horrible crime only to learn that it’s his daughter that’s fallen at the hands of the Sawyers. Sheriff Hartman vows revenge on Verna, Jed, and their weirdo clan.
Jed is promptly incarcerated in the finest 1950s Texas booby hatch for troubled youths and the first act of the film involves more sadism at the hands of the booby hatch orderlies, a lovely young nurse trying to turn around the juvenille delinquents, and a pair of low-rent Natural Born Killers (Ike and Clarice). Early on in the film there’s some fairly deliberate misdirection involving Jed (Leatherface) taking on the name Jackson, and another slack-bate youth Bud (Sam Coleman). Bud clearly looks and acts the part of Leatherface, but it’s really Jed (AKA Jackson) that’s the real Leatherface.
Years later Leatherface’s Mom Verna shows up to free Jed/Jackson, and in doing so causes a small-scale Attica-like riot. Jackson, Bud, the Natural Born Killer duo, and the lovely young nurse escape the barbarous confines of the nuthouse and head out to rural Texas (or in this case principal shooting was done in Bulgaria — yes, Bulgaria) for killing, killing, and more killing. However, the film continues to be relatively coy about the actual identity of Leatherface. Both Jackson and Bud are both troubled by what they’ve seen and their problematic pairing with the truly unhinged Ike and Clarice. In an alternate cosmic twist the whole film could have easily followed the despicable and Ike and Clarice and not even really divulged the true origin of our main man, Leatherface.
All the while, our quintet is being hunted by the perversely ruthless Sheriff Hartman. In a rather ham-fisted car chase twist of fate Sheriff Hartman shoots Jackson in the jaw (AKA Jed, AKA Leatherface) causing a horrible and gnarled disintegration of the lower half of his face. Jackson, understandably loses faith in local law enforcement and goes running back to the putrid arms of his cannibalistic mama, Verna. The quintet is whittled to one, Jackson, and the film reveals the true and unabashed Leatherface. He saws off both of Sheriff Hartman’s hands and ventilates his insides with the family heirloom…his chainsaw.
Leatherface (2017) is a fairly solid film. The acting is well conceived, the Bulgarian sets sure as heck look like backwoods Texas, but the film presents even more questions that not only aren’t answered, they’re not even touched. Most importantly, while it’s kind of interesting to know of Leatherface’s background, there’s a cannibal background to his background. It’s not just Leatherface that’s got a taste for slaughter, it’s his entire family. The Grandpa, the Hitchhiker, the Proprietor, and even Verna Sawyer. While Leatherface has taken on an iconic status, all these characters play an essential role in the Texas Chainsaw tapestry, but none of these roots are ever explored. Assumedly, the cannibalism has continued on for decades but in the end, we’re left holding on to a single tendon in the story.