A genre nearly as old as filmmaking itself, the western thrived throughout the years of the studio system but has zigzagged across rough terrain for the past forty or so years. For the last fifteen-ish years, the struggling, commercially unfriendly genre was either manifested in a neoclassical nostalgic form limited in potential mass appeal (Appaloosa, Open Range) or in reimagined approaches that ran the gamut between contrived pap and inspired deconstructions (anything from Wild Wild West to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
But last December, True Grit – a bona fide western remake that relied on the opportunities available in the genre’s conventions rather than bells, whistles, or ironic tongues in their respective cheeks – became a smash hit. Did this film reinvigorate a genre that was on life support, as the supposed revitalization of the musical is thought to have done a decade ago, or are westerns surviving by moving along a different route altogether? Three westerns released so far this year – Gore Verbinski’s Rango, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, and, as of this weekend, Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens — suggest mixed directions for the dusty ol’ genre.
The western formula traditionally demands that a rugged lone stranger roll into town through one circumstance or another, provide the key to solving one of the town’s main problems that may have arisen specifically because of him, save the town from a threatening intruder, and then go on his lonely way. Both Cowboys & Aliens and Rango follow these conventions with comparable postmodern excess, but to wildly different results.
Rango’s titular character is a self-made thespian who sees the isolated drama manufactured in his Platonic cave of a cage as just as authentic as that which goes on outside. But good news: the movie itself feels the same way. Unlike Johnny Depp’s similarly uncut-for-the-west protag in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) who is slowly transformed by the frontier, Rango’s strength is his irreverence and his impatient eagerness to see any given environment as the stage for which he is presupposed to occupy the center. Rango is a blank slate, not because he lacks psychology or character development, but because of his foolhardy and resilient adaptability (he’s a chameleon in more ways than one) whose “name” appears only because he gives it to himself (perhaps a reference to the Django spaghetti westerns, or a short-lived TV series, who knows?). Rango, in short, is a comprehensible hero in his particular universe only because he’s reliably amorphous and consistently inconsistent.
Rango, then, is the perfect postmodern vessel for the cinephilic environment the character himself resides in. While brief references to other films occur with blink-or-miss-it regularity throughout the film, Rango’s narrative is also more heavily constructed through intertextuality, from its basic narrative framework lifted from Polanski’s Chinatown to an Apocalypse Now-parroting action sequence complete with Wagner to a prophetic appearance of The Man With No Name inexplicably driving a golf cart. Rango demonstrates the blissful potential of freewheeling pastiche, using cinema history not as a reserve for empty in-jokes but as carefully placed building blocks, and with enough gall along the way not to take the whole endeavor the least bit seriously.
Cowboys & Aliens
Cowboys & Aliens similarly opens on a blank slate of a protagonist, with an amnesiac Daniel Craig wandering through the desert complete with a mysterious bracelet and surliness to spare. Despite not even remembering his own name, Craig’s character rather confidently employs the motions of the lone western wanderer in his initial exercises of frontier justice that suggests more of an instinct of genre rather than an instinct of temperament. In a better movie in another universe, Craig’s character may as well have stepped onto the set of western television show and done the exact same thing.
Unsatisfied with the self-imposed limits of its own narrative world, problems arise when Daniel Craig never becomes anything but Daniel Craig, and Harrison Ford Harrison Ford, as if 007, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan were enough to bestow an understanding of Jake Lonergan and Woodrow Dolarhyde (replace these performances with lesser-knowns or unkowns and these characters suddenly become unambiguously paper-thin). Cowboys & Aliens, its genre-play complete in title alone, relies on outside films to stratify its own storytelling and character development rather than using genre convention and existing plot structures to its advantage as a narrative blueprint.
Already light on the sci-fi, Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t know what type of western it wants to be. Favreau and co. conflate John Ford and the Sergio Leone westerns as products of the same stock, the genre’s “classical” form. It introduces us to its own Man With No Name but places him in the aseptic world of The Searchers, a strange juxtaposition that denies its audience John Wayne’s charisma and the hyper-stylized landscape occupied by Clint Eastwood’s mysterious gunman (a beginning credit sequence as bland as the one chosen for Cowboys & Aliens is the first sign of a wrong turn in Leoneland).
The premise of Cowboys & Aliens had obvious potential, and not only because of its cheekiness (for a truly great sci-fi/western hybrid, see Michael Crichton’s Westworld instead). It’s conceptually compelling to take a genre which celebrates western expansion and civilizing the frontier through the vanquishing of those who threaten this effort (first Native Americans, then bandits, and later corporate vultures) and incorporate sci-fi to have the invaders invaded instead. And while revealing the aliens’ motive as (spoiler alert) prospecting was a touch in the right tonal direction, the movie reduces itself to a dry-as-desert Independence Day-esque collaboration of all humans (Cowboys, Indians, and Bandits, oh my!) against the common, nonhuman enemy. Olivia Wilde puts it best when she says to Daniel Craig before attempting to blow up the alien mother ship, “You need to stop thinking.”
Besides sharing a similar key scene with Rango in which a cherished object rolls down a hill, Meek’s Cutoff admittedly lacks the precise narrative ties to the traditional western that Rango and Cowboys & Aliens have. But that’s exactly the point. Rather than further demystify a routinely demystified genre by injecting pastiche or inter-genre experimentation, Meek’s Cutoff rejects the western’s central conceits altogether, chronicling the treacherous and impossible day-to-day task of actually expanding westward. Any aspirations toward “realism” are complicated by the film’s minimalist aesthetic, anachronistic score, and artful composition of landscapes (the rare 1.33:1 aspect ratio is more claustrophobic than immersive). Yet there still seems to be a “this is how it really was” contention persistent in Reichardt’s filmmaking, especially in the film’s feminist interventions. One scene in particular quickly summarizes the film’s critique of the west as a frontier explored by resilient men when the women wake up well before the men (or, for that matter, the sun) to prepare for the day’s excursion.
Meek’s Cutoff has its own “lone hero” in the haggard and talkative eponymous character portrayed by Bruce Greenwood. Stephen Meek uses his autobiography of frontier lore as social currency. The potential veracity of his tales matters less than how deeply he portrays himself as the western hero of any given narrative, as if Meek’s Cutoff is suggesting that the myth of the west grew contemporaneously with the formation of the west itself. That Meek eventually becomes suspected of deliberately guiding the settlers in the wrong direction suggests a correlating discrepancy between the value-structuring tales of the west and its more complicated reality. Even more so than the protagonists of Rango and Cowboys & Aliens, Meek is a character wholly and self-consciously shaped by convention and tradition.
Why continue reinventing, subverting, or deconstructing a genre that has been habitually torn apart and reassembled for over four decades now? Is there any more to say with an unconventional western, or has the lack of convention itself become the convention? While I’d like to see more films that love the genre as unapologetically as True Grit does, I suspect that the western isn’t finished being retooled only in the most superficial terms à la Cowboys and Aliens. But Rango and Meek’s Cutoff thankfully present appealing alternatives by suggesting that there still exists great potential in toying with this otherwise weathered genre.
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