Tom Jolliffe on the return of the Western…
Cinema runs in cycles. A genre may have its run and then have a lull of 10-20 years where audiences aren’t really interested. In the 30’s and 40’s you couldn’t move for gangster films. In the 50’s it was epics and the 60’s there was a huge wave of Westerns. Of course these aren’t definitive placings and the respective colours have often run off into other decades. Clint Eastwood slowly began drifting away from the Western in the 70’s and turning to the more modern, city focused films like Dirty Harry. From cowboy to cop, but you could argue Dirty Harry followed the western formula.
In the past ten years there’s been a big resurgence in the Western. There’d been a few floating around and appearing here and there. Nothing in the tail end of the last century quite managed the impact of Eastwood’s return to the genre with Unforgiven in the early 90’s (the brief resurrection at that point did include solid offerings like Wyatt Earp and Tombstone). The Coen brothers seemed to trigger a new wave with huge critical success with No Country For Old Men. The film is their master work. A modern western played out with all the slow drawl of the classic western. Set in a Southern state where the notion of the cowboy still exists. Everyone still wears Stetsons. The film was beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and showed a collective of directors, cast and Roger Deakins (on cinematography) at the top of their game. Javier Bardem’s villainous performance has become iconic.
The Coens have never been particularly mainstream. Their most cult films, such as The Big Lebowski, have taken a few years to become pop cultural icons. No Country For Old Men just happened to be one of the two films of the year that were deemed “must see” by film enthusiasts. The other was Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. That film has one foot in Western, portraying an era of change in the old west where oil became an obsession and industry and manufacturing was increasing in scale. The success of both at the Oscars, directly competing, meant that both became essential viewing. It now marks 10 years since both were released. The impact of which, particularly in No Country’s case, is still being felt.
In the years since we’ve seen a number of excellent additions and as it happens, looking back in the last decade a big proportion of the most interesting and impeccably made films, have been Westerns. For starters you often focus on the idea of being an outsider. The characters are inherently interesting by their unconventionality. It’s also allowed for a quieter, more contemplative antithesis to the big budget blockbuster currently in trend. Whilst the Avengers or the Justice League swing (or fly, or whatever they do) into action at 100mph with relentless CGI carnage, a film like Hell Or High Water storms in with just as much visceral energy, without overdosing your senses with edits and computer generated action. I’m all for mass spectacle but there’s a danger that the Captain and the Bat fella and all the rest may monopolise cinema, and what remains will be the all too rare piece of intense character study. Right now I feel in terms of interesting cinema, two genres in particular are propping up the table on two sides. The modern western, and the post modern horror (which I’ll undoubtedly cover at some point in another article). There’s other films flitting in and out to prop the remaining two legs of the table (undefinable oddities like Baby Driver help greatly), but there’s a lot of weight on that table now.
Occasionally these films offer salvation for a star who is on the wane. Mud represented a great step forward for Matthew McConaughey who had spent over a decade mired in sub-standard romantic comedies looking thoroughly embarrassed. He became little more than a walking six pack. He’s a good actor. He’d shown that in his earlier work but that promise was fading. Mud gave him an interesting and engaging character in a quiet, thoughtful and involving modern Western. It followed the Shane formula but did so very effectively thanks to insightful writing. It would mark an upturn in his career and more careful choices (leading too to Oscar success in Dallas Buyers Club). To a lesser extent the same was true for Nic Cage in Joe. A rare excursion away from dreary straight to video revenge thrillers, in what was essentially Mud-Lite. Regardless, it gave Cage the opportunity to not merely appear on-screen, but participate emotionally.
We’ve seen the Coens also revisit the genre since with their remake of True Grit. A thoroughly first rate retelling of the classic Western, with the typically gorgeous visuals you would expect from the Coen’s and Jeff Bridges re-teaming with the brothers to great success again. Playing out like something from the Coen’s CV was the engaging and intimate Western, Slow West from director John Maclean. Like True Grit it follows a young protagonist as they engage, to great personal danger, with outlaws. Michael Fassbender is currently one of the most engaging actors in modern cinema. He’s finding interesting roles consistently (we won’t mention Assassin’s Creed), but Slow West was a route into a genre allowing for another interesting anti-hero. It’s the definitive anti-hero genre and Fassbender’s complexity as a performer is pure perfection for such a role. A match made in heaven.
This year we also saw one of the poster children of the comic book box office domination era, Hugh Jackman, take his character out from the conventional comic piece and into Eastwood territory with Logan. With a decidedly more restrained tone and more intimate focus, director James Mangold took the brave (well thoroughly ballsy) decision to step back from the safety net of crowd pleasing spectacle and PG-13 all inclusion, and make a full on, R rated Unforgiven with (adamantium) claws. The film may have succumbed slightly to convention in the final third, but the ground work laid out in the rest of the film was impressive and by going so whole heartedly into the melding of Unforgiven and Shane, it allowed Hugh Jackman to give his most complex performance as Wolverine. To do that in your seventh outing as the same character, takes some doing.
It seems right now there’s a desire to revisit the Western. Maybe it’s the stripped down simplicity of the stories, allowing us to engage and interpret these quiet and complex characters fully. We’ve seen the flipside to this revision with the recent Magnificent Seven remake, which looked to take the template and setting and thoroughly modernise it. Simple, over the top and reasonably enjoyable but vapid and lacking in the characterisation you would expect from more respectfully visiting the genre (and most certainly a pale imitator of the original film, whether you count that as the first Magnificent Seven, or go further and call it The Seven Samurai). The point of a western is not to go foot to the floor on the gas pedal but slow revs, building up to the inevitable crescendo. You can’t treat a good western like a Fast and Furious film. I’m hoping for more interesting entries in the next few years because the danger with the very top end of the box office is that characterisation is secondary.