Slap on some chaps, put on a ten-gallon hat, and hitch your trusty steed boys because we are talkin’ about good ole Westerns. Welcome to the March edition of the Movie Watcher’s Club. You’re probably thinking why aren’t we talking Oscars. We got you covered, don’t worry. This exclusive club likes to be a bit different — zig when others zag, you know? Plus, you’re probably tired of the Oscar talk and could use an escape. And what better place to escape to than the American West.
The Western genre is an expansive one; Wikipedia details 22 subgenres. It’s arguably the most American film genre, despite an Italian man defining so many elements and tropes. From manifest destiny and “cowboys versus Indians” to the morally ambiguous antiheroes and the Mexican standoffs, Westerns effectively have everything and anything you are looking for in a movie. They can be action-packed or social commentaries, comedic or dramatic. Given that the genre has been around since the early days of filmmaking — The Great Train Robbery (1903) is widely considered the first Western film — the scope of westerns need to be broad. There is a ton of unexplored nature and even more lawless bandits roaming that territory.
Please keep in mind that there are a lot of really good Western films. Your favorite movie and many critically acclaimed ones probably didn’t make the cut. There are only seven of us writing this month. Trust me, if we could write about all our favorite Westerns, it would become a short novel. Selecting which one of our favorites to write about was difficult. So, without further ado, let’s get into our choices!
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson (written for the screen by), Upton Sinclair (novel)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds
When thinking of Westerns, your mind may go to gunfights, Clint Eastwood, and Marty Robbins. Maybe classic actors like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart come to mind. Regardless, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new-classic There Will Be Blood probably isn’t the first film that comes rushing to mind; it has minimal violence and it’s set in the early 20th century. It’s true, other films do a better job representing the genre. Still, Anderson crafted a slow-burner that is gritty and still, somehow, beautiful.
Perhaps the biggest theme in Western films is moral ambiguity. Often times that isn’t because of a character being unsure or walking a grey line but because of a lack of structure in society. Many of these films take place in new territories or in the wilderness. The issue isn’t that the characters have to do bad things for good reasons, it’s that there’s nothing there guiding their moral compass. At the center of this struggle is Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). Lewis gives a tremendous performance as a self-made oilman, determined to succeed by any means necessary. We follow him through the years as this determination eventually alienates everyone around him.
Most Westerns revolves around striving to do better. There’s always a robbery or a mission or a bounty to be had. Westerns are seen as a very “American” genre. A lot of that has to do with the openness of the genre. You can be anyone, do anything; it’s a true embodiment of the American Dream. There Will Be Blood showcases this not just through how Plainview gets ahead, but with those he leaves behind. What better example than William Bandy? Bandy resists Plainview’s advances and refuses to sell his land. Eventually, Bandy dies and a member of the community swoops in to try and make a profit. However, Plainview reveals he found a way to use the land for all it was worthwhile not having to give Bandy a penny of the profit.
Our main characters set off on their own path, leaving trouble for those caught in their wake.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a visually stylized (think anything Terrence Malick has ever done) character piece and an exploration of the early development of mass media celebrity in America. Brad Pitt (Jesse James) and Casey Affleck (Robert Ford) turn in mesmerizing performances as the two leads. One is a famous outlaw who has cemented his legacy and the other, a lonely outsider looking for acceptance and belonging.
The breathtaking cinematography from Roger Deakins, including a scene involving a train robbery that is so beautifully done its absurd, and an eerily brilliant score by Nick Cave just add to this modern day Western masterpiece by filmmaker Andrew Dominik. Without giving away much else — the title alone speaks to the narrative — just see this film for the sheer pleasure of watching filmmaking at it’s best. The film transcends normal structure and becomes art.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Cormac McCarthy
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
The other night I watched Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers’ directorial debut and a delicious slice of 80s neon Texas noir. The film is about as fully formed as a directorial debut could hope to be. From the start, Joel and Ethan Coen proved themselves to be the masters of their domain — one filled with endearingly oddball characters in over their heads, violent confrontations resulting from chance, stupidity, or greed, and tragedies that in hindsight seem inevitable for being all too avoidable.
Aside from these hallmarks, what the Coens really excel at is imparting a very real sense of place. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the chilly upper Midwest without conjuring Fargo’s long highway shots or its blood-stained tundra; Burn After Reading so effectively captures the shallowness and paranoia of Washington, D.C. it’s almost not funny; and the insipid, sleazy, vaguely sinister dreamworld of Los Angeles gets three Coen love letters, in Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and Hail, Caesar!
This knack for setting and atmosphere is so palpable in No Country for Old Men, the Coens’ return to Texas, that the viewer would be forgiven for squinting to keep the desert dust out of her eyes. If someone needed to be shown what the phrase “Everything’s bigger in Texas” means, I’d show them No Country for Old Men. Between meditative shots overlooking the Texan plain, a practically barren soundtrack, small-town characters that dominate the screen as effectively as any biblical figure could, and enough thrilling shootouts to make even Sergio Leone a little envious, No Country for Old Men has such a strong sense of the Southwest I have to remind myself that the Coens are from suburban Minnesota. And ultimately, what the Coen brothers are hunting after is the strange, funny, bleak heart of America, catching glimpses of it in Texas motel murders, harebrained international espionage schemes, and stoned quests for a rug that’ll really tie the room together.
True Grit (2010)
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Charles Portis
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld
Yes, this is the remake of the film with Jeff Bridges. Not John Wayne. John Wayne is overrated and a one-note actor. Feel free to fight me by the bike rack after you finish reading the article. If you can’t find the bike rack, the comment section will be fine.
The Coen Brothers took aim at the western classic and added the grit that True Grit was in desperate need of. A 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) hell-bent on avenging the murder of her father seeks out the help of the law, only to be turned away by everyone except deputy Rooster Cogburn (Bridges). Rooster is an older gentleman who decides to go after the murderer based sheerly on the reward Mattie is offering. As chance would have it, the murderer has also taken down a U.S. Senator, incurring the wrath the Texas Rangers led by a man named LaBoeuf (Damon). Cogburn and LaBoeuf join forces and tell Mattie to let them handle it. She doesn’t listen, sneaks along with them, and the trio begins the hunt for Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin).
The film is gorgeous and follows in line with what has become known as a Revisionist Western film: the heroes and villains aren’t as clear as day and an audience may even feel sympathy for a villain and disdain for a hero. Cogburn is nasty, a drunk, and not exactly a team player. LaBeouf is mad for power, far too cautious, and kind of a dead weight in a fight. Mattie is a little turd who, while fiercely independent, still has a lot to learn. Worst off, none of these qualities get resolved between the three.
True Grit is a feel good, coming of age story about friendship this is not which makes the film that much more fun. Bridges and Damon give us rich, detailed counters of each other instead of the white hat do-gooderness that John Wayne literally always plays. Hailee Steinfeld is also completely brilliant as Mattie Ross. Smart, witty, innocent, independent, naive; everything a complex character ought to be.
As an added bonus, Cheney isn’t even seen for the majority of the film. He says little, but he brings an unmistakable terrifying energy to the roll. This has a lot to do with how Cheney is spoken of. We are told through the whole film how cruel and disgusting he is only to have him come on camera and seem almost broken and desperate. This somehow makes him scarier and more intimidating because all of a sudden he’s not an evil cowboy. He could just as easily be Mattie.
An improvement in every single way from its origins, the cast and script bring True Grit out of the muck and raise it to its own namesake. Gritty. Real. Amazing.
Director: George Stevens
Writers: A.B. Guthrie Jr., Jack Sher, Jack Schaefer
Stars: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
Shane is perhaps the least gritty of our live-action selections, and a purer reminder of TV Western productions like The Lone Ranger and The Rifleman, where the bad guys wind up in jail whilst the hero rides away largely unscathed. Shane is similar; it’s wholesome even in the face of combat, even virtuous in a lawless genre. Sure, it has its share of ruthless bar fights and no-nonsense dialogue. But for every chair shattering over Shane’s back, there’s an equal admiring glance from young Joey, who idolizes the former to an extent that reaches the audience.
Shane is vulnerable, yes. He takes punches. He bleeds. But the moral incorrigibility that he steadfastly carries throughout the film is certainly deserving of the admiration, just as it is a rarity in the genre. While his past may be shrouded in mystery, there is no grit or darkness to his character. He is Good with a capital G, and it is a refreshing spin amidst the litany of heavier Westerns in our collection.
Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Quentin Tarantino may be a one-trick pony, but that one trick he does know has made him into one of the most iconic directors of our time. Django Unchained is no different his previous masterpieces, taking place in the slavery era. Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio headline a star-studded cast in the violence-filled “Spaghetti” Western film.
Tarantino pays homage to many traditional Westerns, from the typeface of the title and the opening theme song to showing various locations that had been previously made famous in other westerns.
The film focuses on Schultz (Waltz) and former-slave Django (Foxx) on the hunt to rescue Django’s wife. The blood and gore that follows the two throughout their journey are exactly what you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, and yet at times, I found myself wanting more.
DiCaprio stars as Calvin Candie, the plantation owner who also owns Django’s wife. I’d be hard-pressed to find a word to aptly describe Candie, who frequently has his slaves participate in wrestling matches to the death for his enjoyment. The portrayal of Candie’s character was met with some controversy due to the violence and language used. It’s not Tarantino’s absolute best work, clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes. It’s probably 45 minutes too long, but the work of the star-studded cast makes it a worthwhile watch for all those who can stomach the gore.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Adriano Bolzoni, Mark Lowell, Víctor Andrés Catena, Sergio Leone, Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil, Fernando Di Leo, Duccio Tessari, Tonino Valerii
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volontè, Marianne Koch
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Finally, a Clint Eastwood movie!” You’re also probably thinking to yourself, “Why isn’t this selection The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!?” Fair question, but I have a fair reason.
Yojimbo A Fistful of Dollars may not have been the first Spaghetti Western, but it certainly was the genre-defining Spaghetti Western. The film effectively launched Clint Eastwood into superstardom and allowed the brilliant Sergio Leone to be, well, brilliant in other films. Without Dollars, there isn’t The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West; Clint Eastwood isn’t “Clint Eastwood,” and doesn’t get to make the exceptional Unforgiven. The first film of “The Man with No Name” trilogy truly that important.
From its signature style — wide, panned-out landscape shots of the “American West” and zoomed-in close-ups during dramatically tense moments — to the iconic Ennio Morricone score, it’s far too difficult to hate A Fistful of Dollars. It has everything you want out of a Western: the morally ambiguous anti-hero, standoffs, gunfights, and of course, violence. A Fistful of Dollars is usually my first recommendation for people to get into Westerns, even before the John Ford classics because of the aforementioned characteristics. The grandeur of the film and its loose sequels is everything I want in a Western. It’s a staple of the genre and can never be overlooked.
It’s crazy to me that of all the possible choices, we ended up with two Coen Brother’s films, three films released in 2007, and no John Ford or John Wayne. Oh well, what can you do right? It’s not like these choices are bad. Quite frankly, they are excellent.
If you are new to the Movie Watcher’s Club, do not hesitate to check out the series. It’s been going on for a number of months now. If you rather just look at the movies we selected, Letterboxd is the place for you. And don’t forget to stay tuned for April’s list. The topic is going to be a hoot!