Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Return of the Western

A genre long forgotten, like a tumbleweed on an empty stretch of road, is seeing a comeback in the mainstream. Over the past few years, more and more well made westerns have cropped up. Although the idea of the Western as a genre has returned, in fact it has morphed into something new and different. Just as Film Noir returned in the 70s, the Western returns to the 00's. The Neo-Western, if you will.

The Neo-Western is something a little different then the westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawk's day. Beyond the more violent portrayals, there is a deep seeded ideology of loneliness, vulnerability and the dangers of freedom relevant in the stories of these westerns. Could this be because of world affairs or just because the ratings system is a lot less strict? I think it's more of a sign of the times. A reflection of the violence of our modern era and how the rugged idealism of the West still gave way to dangers of the human spirit and conflicting idealism. The next four films, ultimately different from each other, show how Westerns have adapted to the climate of modern film and are still a relevant form of filmmaking.

Although it is a remake, 3:10 to Yuma still has some new influences than it's predecessor. This is the most classic and standard in style then the next few films. It is still an important addition to the genre. 3:10 to Yuma shows that the power of the Western doesn't need to adapt to a new mold, but can still update itself for the kinds of audiences looking for something that mixes more intense action and intricate filmmaking. The most important part of 3:10 is that it is character driven. The desires of Christian Bale as a family man trying to make ends meet and live up to being a hero to his children really hits hard. Russell Crowe's initial self-righteous, almost demonic, warrior against the powers at be takes the most sharp turn as the film progresses as he feels for the sad tale of Bale's existence. The two play off of each other so well and side-step all the pitfalls the Western genre could have by making unique characters, and unique heroes on opposite sides of the law.
Beyond the characters, since this is a remake, the story is nothing new. Bale joins a odd mixture of men to bring Crowe to justice. Bale is hell-bent on getting Crowe in the 3:10 to Yuma train to have him hung for countless murders and stealing. Crowe slyly plays his captured criminal not as one looking forward to his death, but looking forward to the onslaught this gang will give the crew bringing him to justice. Ben Foster of Freaks and Geeks and the upcoming vampire film 30 Days of Night gives the most blood curdling performance as the would be successor and right hand man to Crowe's aging yet still tough as nails outlaw.

A little more unconventional and on another continent, The Proposition may be this generations The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Although taking place in the Australian outback, Nick Cave's (yes... directed by the Bad Seed himself) epic masterpiece shows a family at odds with itself, the law, the Outback and the world at large. Can a movie not about America be a Western, you might ask? In most cases you might say no, but in this case and hopefully more, it shows the spirit of the American West isn't only an American idea. There were cowboys in Argentina and definitely outlaws and ruthless murderers in Australia.
The Proposition boasts three outstanding performances. Guy Peirce plays the torn brother unsure whether he should murder his lunatic brother in order to free his younger brother or to go it alone, or to save both. Ray Winstone plays the Magistrate of the tiny province trying to keep the peace, protect his wife and failing marriage and his desire to finish off his obsession with the Burn's Brothers gang. The surprise victory performance is delivered by Danny Huston who is the crazed lunatic of an older brother. His murderous rampages in the outback not only include that of the indigenous Aborigine's, but of the settlers. His raping, pillaging and stealing is barbaric and twisted, but his spirituality with the land of Australia and love of the open country is something to admire.

Severely overlooked as one of the best films of 2005, The Proposition shows the expanding influence of the Western in other world cultures.

That being said, the most interesting Neo-Westerns are the ones that take place during present day. Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, The Three Burials of Malquiadas Estrada, is a modern day tale of redemption, violence and the haziness of borders (moral and geographical.) One thing that tips this to being a Western is the desperation of the characters. Whether it be Tommy Lee Jones' vengeful ranch hand to Barry Peppers lost almost empty Border Patrolman, the idea of emptiness and the vastness of the West sucks this into the genre of the Western. Tommy Lee Jones leads Barry Pepper on an epic journey somewhere along the border of Texas and Mexico. The lines of demarcation are so hazy that you never know where they are going. The idea of property, borders and who belongs where is just as relevant a topic in modern day as it is during the time of the Old West. More along the lines of a Sergio Leone western then a Ford or Hawks western, the silence and the vastness of the west takes the viewer in. The breathtaking cinematography (care of Chris Menges of The Mission and The Killing Fields) is an integral part of the story telling.

The final film discussed here is the least bit a Western, but encapsulates the spirit and ideas of the Western. Wim Wenders Don't Come Knockin' is a fantastic film, more of a character study than a journey and more about the American spirit than about Cowboys and riding the range. Sam Shephard plays an aging actor who rides of into the sunset... off of a Hollywood set of a Western production. He goes on a soul searching journey through alcohol, women and bumping into family issues along the way. Eva Marie Saint plays his sympathetic mother, Jessica Lange plays the love of his life that he left and Gabriel Mann plays his long lost son.
As little this film has to do with the other three in this blog, Don't Come Knockin' embodies the feeling of all Westerns in it's characters. All of them are lost in some way and are searching for something to fill the void. Whether it was the person you loved, the father you never had or the son that was estranged, these feelings of emptiness and loneliness are present. This calls back to Westerns like Shane or even Dead Man (maybe the most important Neo-Western) with it's fish out of water mysticism and it's soul searching through tragic events. Although not through gunfights and gun slinging, it's through emotional bonds and exchange of words that the characters are hurt, fulfilled or realized.
The Western is back. With more films coming out , whether the character crisis in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or the noir western of the upcoming No Country for Old Men, the Western may be back and may be getting more exposure in the mainstream. Unlike the old days where the Western was limited to tales of adventure, the Western has become the embodiment of the American spirit and the American dilemma. The American Dream is a dream after all and some dreams lead to greatness and self-discovery while other dreams lead to destruction and strife. The Neo-Western is the blend of adventure and self discovery.

1 comment:

j. leo said...

Paris, Texas is another Wim Wenders film that isn't a Western but has great Western influences in it. The lone wolf is Harry Dean Stanton, travelling across American wilderness (or highways, in this case) to find his ex-wife. It's pretty excellent.