Still Escaping the Hangman’s Noose, by Alexander Miller
While the halcyon days of John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, and Monument Valley are sadly behind us, the Western is alive and well; 2015 proves that. The fictionalization of frontier life is so distinctly native to American cinema, and yet it translates so fluently throughout the world’s cinematic vernacular. Other countries transform it into something unique to their culture, yet the brand is always visible and never reductive. The Western has expanded and taken on the mythic proportions it so frequently sets out to recreate, and thankfully it shows no sign of slowing down. Compiling my top ten of the year, I realized just how many of these titles were westerns, and how many more I would have liked to add if I left my apparent proclivity towards the genre get the best of me. But with so many great titles this year, it would be criminal not to award extra praise to the westerns of the past year.
The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s second venture into the genre after his controversial and ultra-violent Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight seems to have people divided. Yes, it’s ugly, mean and downright grim, but it’s also one of the director’s more original films. While Tarantino has gone from enfant terrible to a celebrated force in cinema, it’s Intriguing to chart his evolution as a filmmaker. The Hateful Eight takes Tarantino’s hyperbolic modernism to garish new heights; by the end of Tarantino’s bloodbath feels (and looks) more like a horror film than a western, but this claustrophobic tale doesn’t have a crisis of identity. Taking an epic approach to a compact story, Tarantino’s harsh vision is as disarmingly fresh as it is original. He claims he only has two more films left in him, and I hope they’re both westerns.
We didn’t just have the pleasure of one nightmarish western with Kurt Russell, but two; the second, more terrifying than anything dreamt up by Tarantino. Easy to categorize as a horror/western, this slow-burning journey is easily one of the most original films of the year, regardless of genre. The archetypes are all there – the fair but tough sheriff, the gunslinger, the old timer with a heart of gold, the green deputy, and the innocents taken hostage by hostile natives. The characters are recognizable, the story customary, but the terrain is new, unfamiliar, and scary as hell. Writer-director Craig S. Zahler doesn’t subvert genre for the sake of doing so but carves out a western unlike any before it. Every once and while we get the most innovation and originality outside the major studios and prestige directors.
Another surprise this year was the aptly-named and terse little gem that goes by Slow West. Michael Fassbender plays an unlikely drifter who becomes an unlikely escort for an unlikely traveler in this very unlikely movie that works off of a unique vision of the American West. It’s a quirky, smart, languidly paced and softly spoken yarn with an ethereal, dreamlike quality that, as the title implies, knows what type of film it is. The meta-movie notation plays to the movie’s aesthetic strengths just as well as the film’s title, indicating that this is a self-aware and distinctive undertaking. Perhaps it’s the outsider point of view that gives Slow West its unique sensibilities (Scottish writer/director John Maclean directs a UK/New Zealand production). The heroism and violence are undercut, almost comical, the cruel irony running throughout the movie is handled with humor and levity, but Slow West is a full blooded western from beginning to end. We’ve seen countless houses/hideouts shot to pieces (Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, The Proposition, Heaven’s Gate, The Long Riders) and Slow West calls to this little trope when Ben Mendelsohn stands up and shouts “kill that house”, prompting the wanton destruction of a small cottage by all manner of gunfire. Short West might be a more appropriate title; this 83-minute long film has a full script that doesn’t feel rushed or reduced.
The Keeping Room
Another slice of Americana known as The Keeping Room came from the sidelines this year and it’s a dark little gem. Looking at the dangerous days following the Civil War from a woman’s point of view, The Keeping Room is a new revisionist western that aims our attention at the flames of discontent we continue to stoke, with or without a war to use as an excuse. Turning the damsel in distress device inside out by making its female characters tough and self-sufficient. Punchy, thrilling and blunt with strong women at the front lines, The Keeping Room is my kind of movie.
Jauja and Theeb
For those of us who were wondering “where the hell is Viggo Mortensen?”, the answer is this beautiful film called Jauja. Now, we’ve spoken of a few “deliberately-paced” films here today, but if there’s a slow western this year, Jauja is it. That’s not a detriment at all, but it does require a bit of patience on the viewer’s part. The rather simple story of a man (Mortensen) searching for his missing daughter takes its time. Thankfully, “beautiful” is an understatement; you could pause this film at any moment throughout, and the result would be worthy of framing. The cropped 4:3 aspect ratio capture the images in a way that evokes photography from the era, accentuated by the way director Lisandro Alonso blocks his characters in a delicately posed manner. Jauja is more than just eye candy; it’s realized with an earthy flavor exemplifying a time and a place that feels authentic and palatable. Another surprising western from around the world is the Oscar-nominated Theeb. An unexpected entry in the genre, but intended as such by the director who said he “wanted to create a Bedouin western”, and did just that with his taut and thrilling film about two young men who are escorting an English soldier to the Ottoman Railway. Son of Saul is a shoe-in for the foreign language Oscar, but my heart will be with Theeb.
Another Oscar-nominated title that has critics and the film community divided is Inarritu’s latest venture. Is The Revenant perfect? No. Sure Inarritu’s latest epic goes for a sprawling saga of suffering and revenge, but it’s also an incredibly detailed, superbly performed fable of vengeance and redemption. It’s a spectacle and an experience; it might not constitute a perfect movie, but it’s an unforgettable one.
Another notable film is Kristian Levring’s The Salvation starring none other than Mads Mikkelsen of NBC’s Hannibal fame. This Danish/British/South African co-production is an enjoyable revenge tale centering on a Danish immigrant (Mikkelsen) who murders the brother of a vicious gang leader in defense of his family who joins him in the new land. The Salvation works with a political allegory (the town is protected by an oil baron in cahoots with local gangsters) and some solid performances from Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Eva Green. You can feel the budget strain at points (CG backgrounds really stand out), but it’s also a sign of the filmmakers putting every dollar on the screen, so it’s hard not to admire someone for trying to do the best work they can. The Salvation is an enjoyable entry in this years Western canon, imperfect but for fans of the genre very entertaining; hopefully, more people will revisit this film in the following years.
The end of the year leading up to (and around) awards season is always a pleasure because we get to compile and read top ten lists, and review the films of the year. Seeing the collective of westerns was a pleasant surprise. The Western is so rooted in the art of film, with so many different facets that are still being expanded upon and explored. Westerns can distort and simultaneously clarify history, glamorize of chastise pioneer life, or serve as the basis for a more allegorical device, or simply serve as the representation of a country’s folklore. They can also encompass all of the above; it’s a summarization of culture, mythos, and folklore. Seeing it develop over the years fills me with joy.