I had a love-hate relationship with Westerns growing up in the ’80s. My father loved the John Wayne classics, and geniuses like Tarantino still do, but for me the mythology was too much: untainted cowboy honor; ridiculously unbelievable gun fights; the implied theme of manifest destiny; the moral superiority of a rugged outdoor life; cookie-cutter good guys and bad guys. The genre was hyper-romanticized and understandably declined after the ’60s. But I did love the atmosphere of the 1800s American frontier — ranch houses, homesteads, and saloons; lawless towns growing at the edge of civilization; nearby Indian sites; hanging trees, lassos, bandannas, canteens, and stagecoaches; gamblers and whores living recklessly by the day. It summoned a turbulent world I wanted to visit, but did so in a way I could never take seriously.
That changed when Clint Eastwood single-handedly revised the genre in the ’90s. The movie, of course, was Unforgiven: a Western that shat on all the silly conventions and took itself seriously. Sheriffs and deputies were suddenly portrayed negatively, incompetent, and even sadistic. Gunfight scenarios became realistic, messy, sometimes embarrassingly so. In the film, one of the protagonists shoots a completely defenseless man taking a shit in an outhouse. These “heroes” are appalled by their own violence, to the extent that one of them quits the mission after they kill the first villain, and the other breaks down crying after he shoots the guy on the commode. As for the lead hero himself, Will Munny (played by Eastwood), he is a sociopath whose legendary gun-skills come mostly by getting drunk. At the blistering climax, he blows away an unarmed barkeep before tearing up the whole saloon in a mass killing spree. Unforgiven was unprecedented, an instant classic, and proved to me that the Western could survive in an age of realist cinema.
The idea was slow catching on. There were a few ’90s efforts like Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), and The Quick and the Dead (1995), but in my view hardly inspired. The efforts in the 21st century, on the other hand, have been remarkable. In what follows I assess fourteen “modern” Western films, starting with Unforgiven. The first seven go up to the year 2010, and fall under the umbrella of “Revising the Genre”. They are typically revenge or outlaw films. The other seven come from the past few years under “Indie-fying the Genre”, and their sub-genres cover a wide range — spaghetti, romance, horror, wilderness survival, mystery. I’m convinced that we’re in the middle of an Indie-Western renaissance, especially after the flood of impressive films last year alone.
Stage One: Revising the Genre
Unforgiven (1992). Clint Eastwood. 5 stars. I already discussed this one above, but it deserves the extra commentary. I’m not sure what the Western would look like today, or even if it would exist much at all, without Eastwood’s revisionist reboot. The best character is Gene Hackman’s sheriff, a sadist who over-punishes people but for all his nastiness is rather endearing. All the characters are great — Eastwood’s Will Munny, the reformed alcoholic who is less a legendary gunslinger and more a mass killer when he gets drunk; Morgan Freeman’s Ned, Will’s old friend who is in a relationship with an Indian woman (the first time a Western depicted an African American in such a relationship); and the Schofield Kid, full of bluster and so blind he can barely shoot a target. These three leave their Kansas homes in 1881 for a town in Wyoming, when they hear of a bounty being offered by a group of whores, one of whom was maimed by a customer. They run afoul the sheriff, who won’t tolerate vigilantes, and while they succeed in killing the two villains, it comes at the price of Ned’s life, the Kid’s innocence, and Munny’s soul. Unforgiven is a pure masterpiece.
Open Range (2003). Kevin Costner. 4 stars. The last time Kevin Costner directed himself in a Western was in the horrible Dances With Wolves (1990) which inspired countless “white savior” offshoots. Costner was never really good, but he did surprisingly well by Open Range, which brings considerable depth to the Western, and delivers the best gun fight sequence I’ve seen in the genre. It’s set on the grazing plains of Montana in 1882, when times are changing, ranching has settled in, and town residents are becoming increasingly hostile to free-range cattle raising. A greedy rancher sets his men to raid the free-ranger camp, killing and injuring the young hands, prompting the lead characters (played by Costner and Robert Duvall) to wreak vengeance in the rancher’s town. That final gunfight is tense and brutal and long, and the film’s unquestionable selling point. The only weakness is the romance between Costner’s character and the town doctor’s sister. It’s not bad, but it is a bit contrived. On whole this is an overlooked film that deserves more attention; a scenic gem and character focus that builds to inevitable bloodshed.
The Missing (2003). Ron Howard. 2 ½ stars. The most pedestrian entry on this list comes from the director who gave us putrid films like Willow and The DaVinici Code, but also gems like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. The Missing falls somewhere in between. It caters to mainstream audiences, offering some enjoyable sequences but never taking any real risks. The story starts on a prairie land in New Mexico (1885), where white settlers maintain an uneasy truce with the neighboring Indians. When the daughter of a local healer (played by Cate Blanchett) is abducted by Indians to be sold down in Mexico, she enlists the help of her estranged father (played by Tommy Lee Jones), and it becomes a rather predictable kidnapping plot that allows a flawed man to reconcile himself with his family. The problem is that Howard doesn’t want to risk offending anyone. The best and boldest scene involves the Indian baddie casting a hideous curse on the Cate Blanchett character from miles away using a voodoo doll.
3:10 to Yuma (2007). James Mangold. 4 ½ stars. Of all the oldies to remake, 3:10 to Yuma is an excellent choice. It’s an outlaw story and Russell Crowe plays the lead bastard with relish. The plot is lean and straightforward and so effective it doesn’t need any complex supplements. In the 1880s an Arizona rancher (played by Christian Bale) is about to lose his land to the railroad company, and so for a reward volunteers to escort Ben Wade (the outlaw played by Crowe) to the town of Contention, where a train will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma. Along the way, Wade is able to kill two of his escorts; another is lost to Indians; yet another falls to people who want to kill Wade out of revenge for past grievances. By the end of the road Wade and the rancher have formed a strange respect for each other. As the train is about to arrive, Wade’s outlaw group descend on the town to rescue their boss — the tension is as nail-biting as the streets of Contention become a gunslinging bloodbath — and even after many viewings I’m always shocked by Wade’s last-minute turn and slaughter of his own gang.
The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Andrew Dominik. 3 stars. This one aspires to greatness but is a chore to get through in some parts, or at least for me, mostly because I can’t stand Casey Afleck (he’s even worse than brother Ben). The story is set in Missouri and Kentucky and tracks the final years (1881-82) of train robber Jesse James, played competently enough by Brad Pitt as a charming psychopath. His sidekick sycophant Robert Ford (Affleck) had wormed his way into Jesse’s favor, having worshiped him since childhood, but eventually assassinates him for the law. It’s a well made film in terms of aesthetic — the influence of Terrence Malick is in evidence — but I felt much as I did watching Spielberg’s Lincoln: not always caring about what I was seeing. It’s good with gang dynamics, for example in the way Jesse sees threats under every rock and murders those he slightly suspects of being traitors and moles. Shades of The Departed, but unfortunately not half as engaging, which is doubly unfortunate since the film is so long. The last half hour goes out strong.
Appaloosa (2008). Ed Harris. 3 ½ stars. I like this one more than it deserves, because Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson make such a good team. (As an aside, they also make great enemies: witness History of Violence.) It’s the most traditional-feeling Western on this list — the classic lawman story. Harris and Mortenson play marshals who are hired by the officials of a New Mexico town (in 1882) being terrorized by a renegade rancher. They are straight-up good guys, and so Appaloosa lacks the cutting cynicism of the other entries. But it works, because the marshals lose; their moral compasses can’t prevail against a tyrant who happens to be friends with the 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur, who pardons the rancher after being convicted in court to hang. It deteriorates to the point of tragedy when the rancher sets up business in town and actually becomes friends with the city officials who first hired the marshals to bring him to justice. It’s a solid enough story, and the gun fights are impressive.
True Grit (2010). The Coen Brothers. 5 stars. My absolute favorite Western (aside from Tarantino’s two, which don’t really count being Tarantino), and I was surprised to love it since I’ve never been a huge fan of the Coen brothers. But they remade this ’60s classic dark, in the same vein of Unforgiven. The character of Mattie Ross is the film; Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen (second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy). I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. She exudes a convincing steel for her age and a completely believable Presbyterian ethic. And Jeff Bridges, for my money, is far better than John Wayne (I know that doesn’t mean much since I hate the Duke). The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.
Stage Two: Indie-fying the Genre
Django Unchained (2012). Quentin Tarantino. 5 stars. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. I began this post by expressing my contempt for classic Westerns, but if I had seen more of the spaghetti breed, I might have watched more of them. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.
The Homesman (2014). Tommy Lee Jones. 4 ½ stars. This is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. For whatever reason, the Irishman uses this bastion of emptiness on the plains as a base for attracting business investors. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but he adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.
Slow West (2015). John Maclean. 3 ½ stars. Here’s the first of five Westerns from last year. It’s a road journey in 1870, taking a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his bandit protector (Michael Fassbender) through Colorado and Indian territory. The youth is looking for a fugitive woman who was his girlfriend in Scotland, and has paid the bandit to protect him, but it turns out this bandit it looking for the same woman to kill her for a bounty. The way things turn out isn’t predictable. It’s a romance, but also an examination of manifest destiny and the way the American legacy has impacted natives and immigrants. It hardly qualifies as a thriller, and yet the final shoot-out is exactly that — a prairie barrage so tightly edited and savagely orchestrated that you find yourself ducking for cover as the bullets fly. This one flew under the radar and while not excellent by any means, deserves more attention.
The Keeping Room (2015). Daniel Barber. 4 stars. You could call this a frontier feminist piece, and a terrifying home invasion set on a South Carolina farmstead in the last days of the Civil War (1865). The bad guys are two northern deserters who besiege three women: two sisters played by Brit Marling and an older Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit; their slave is played by Muna Otaru, and for me she is the understated star of The Keeping Room. The farmstead exists in a quiet dreamy aesthetic until shattered by the arrival of the union men, and what follows is a Western version of Straw Dogs. The younger sister is raped in her bedroom; the older sister mistakenly shoots the slave’s brother returning in the night, thinking him to be one of the union men; she is appalled by her error, and her slave forgives her in an emotional scene. There is paradox too, in the way one of the union men, fatally wounded, begs for a sort of understanding before dying.
Bone Tomahawk (2015). S. Craig Zahlern. 4 ½ stars. The horror Western had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. I imagine that S. Craig Zahlern was giving Ron Howard the finger, and saying this is what a film like The Missing should be like. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.
The Revenant (2015). Alejandro G. Iñárritu. 4 stars. On Christmas Day of last year, two extraordinary westerns hit the theaters. Each was over 2 ½ hours in length, and as a New Yorker critic put it, they would have made a suitable double-feature of “malice and mistrust, in which characters are trapped in extreme winter-weather conditions and settle their differences with extreme violence”. In the case of The Revenant, I can hardly think of another film that has made me grateful for my comforts in life. And yes, it’s like The Hateful Eight in many ways, especially in terms of a director’s nostalgia for the pre-digital era and a return to old-school reality. And like the other indie films above, it fuses the Western with other genres to produce something new. Revenge is on the menu, but it’s a wilderness survival tale above all, and explores the theme of rebirth against the savage backdrop of nature. Every step of Hugh Glass’s 200-mile trek back from the dead — he really covered this distance across South Dakota in 1823 — assaults us with nature’s cold disregard for human life. Yet it’s beautiful every step of the way.
The Hateful Eight (2015). Quentin Tarantino. 5 stars. It’s only fitting this comes last on the list, as it’s my #1 favorite. It’s a bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these eight angries will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a Wyoming roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s certainly not a political film, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War (it’s set in the 1870s), and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the word “nigger” to a vengeful use of the word “bitch”, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works completely for it, and brings a near perfect nihilistic artistry to the Western.
Stage One: Revising the Genre
Unforgiven (1992). Revenge.
Open Range (2003). Revenge.
The Missing (2003). Rescue.
3:10 to Yuma (2007). Outlaw.
The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Outlaw.
Appaloosa (2008). Lawmen.
True Grit (2010). Revenge.
Stage Two: Indie-fying the Genre
Django Unchained (2012). Spaghetti.
The Homesman (2014). Odyssey.
Slow West (2015). Romance.
The Keeping Room (2015). Feminist/Home Invasion.
Bone Tomahawk (2015). Cannibalist/Horror.
The Revenant (2015). Wilderness Survival.
The Hateful Eight (2015). Murder Mystery.