Favourite westerns of the decade

 

© Zentropa Entertainment 33 / Danish Film Institute / Warner Bros

 

And so an old decade ends and a new decade begins…  Which is weird, as to someone of my vintage it feels like we only said goodbye to the noughties a few months ago.  In fact, it feels like the most recent decade hurtled past so quickly that we didn’t even have time to decide on a proper name for it.  What was it?  The tens?  The teens?  The teenies?

 

Meanwhile, I assume that this new decade will be referred to as the twenties.  The previous twenties, in the early 20th century, were also given an adjective and became known as the ‘roaring twenties’.  Unfortunately, if the same adjective is applied to the new twenties, I suspect they’ll be ‘roaring’ because they’ll witness the roaring of countless apocalyptic, global-warming-induced bush and forest fires.

 

Anyway, this changeover of decades has meant that many of the newspapers and magazines I read have spent the past few weeks publishing ‘best of’ lists – best books, best albums, best films – for 2010-2019.  I’m going to post only one such list on this blog and it concerns a cinematic genre that’s close to my heart: western movies.  (I’ve started reading Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove and I’ve just had lunch courtesy of my local Sri Lankan branch of Taco Bell.  So I’m in a particularly western-ly mood at the moment.)

 

Here, then, are my favourite westerns from the past ten years.

 

© Paramount

 

True Grit (2011)

Not so much a remake of the famous 1969 western True Grit as a fresh adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel on which it was based, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit was received with muted enthusiasm by critics and isn’t usually credited as one of their better movies.  But I like it for its fidelity to the novel.  Like its source material, it has as its central character and narrator the 14-year-old Maddie Ross, a precocious, forthright and priggish girl who hires rascally Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who murdered her father.  The 1969 version is, of course, dominated by John Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn.  Here, though, with Maddie (Hailee Steinfield) centre-stage, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is pushed to the side somewhat and he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure.

 

The result is a more sombre, less exuberant film that is usually the case with the Cohen Brothers, for the most part following the events of the novel.  Things go off on a tangent at one point, though, when the Cohens insert some weird stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin, as if they suddenly decided to make the story a little more Coen-esque so that it’d appeal to their normal audiences.  I particularly appreciate the melancholy ending, in accordance with the book, which has Maddie a quarter-century later as a middle-aged, one-armed spinster travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s heard, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing – only to find when she arrives that he died a few days earlier.  It’s symbolic of how, by the start of the 20th century, the West had been tamed and the old, wild one had gone.

 

The Salvation (2014)

At times it feels like western movies have become so engrained on the global consciousness that non-American audiences are now fonder of them than American ones; and non-American filmmakers are more interested in making them than their American counterparts.  That’s certainly how it feels with The Salvation, a Danish western film directed by Kristian Levring and featuring a Danish / French / Swedish / Welsh / Scottish cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing the villain, as the only key cast-member who’s American.  The story, of a Danish settler avenging himself against the psychos who murdered his wife and child and finding himself up against a gang that controls a town, is no great shakes but the film is well-made and the cast is marvellous.  Besides Morgan, it has the can-do-no-wrong Mads Mikkelsen as its hero, the equally can-do-no-wrong Eva Green as its heroine (or anti-heroine), and also Jonathan Pryce, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshell and former French footballer Eric Cantona.

 

Actually, the thought of Cantona playing a cowboy makes me want to punch my hand in the air and shout “YES!”

 

© DMC Film / Film4

 

Slow West (2015)

If Danish filmmakers can make a western, then surely so too can British and New Zealander ones.  Filmed in New Zealand and directed by a Scotsman, John Maclean, who was once the DJ, sampler and keyboard-player with the Beta Band, Slow West is an eclectic affair.  It features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians, two husband-and-wife Swedish bandits, a German social anthropologist studying the Native American tribes, a villain masquerading as a clergyman, a haunted forest and some Laurel-and-Hardy-style slapstick comedy involving a washing line.  Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.  The result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but nonetheless has a lean and linear narrative.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an innocent love-struck teenager who pursues the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic to America, and finally across the Wild West where, in an echo of True Grit, he hires a mysterious and hard-bitten bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and guardian.  Needless to say, things become wilder and more dangerous the further west they go.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The eighth movie (get it?) made by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight has a rogue’s gallery of characters trapped in a store-cum-refuge called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of a blizzard, one night sometime after the American Civil War.  They include gang-leader and human wildcat Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a prisoner of bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell).  Ruth suspects that at least one of his fellow travellers in the haberdashery is a member of Daisy’s gang and is plotting to rescue her and eliminate all the witnesses, i.e. everyone else.  Who is it?

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is long and long too are the scenes where characters probe, joust and bicker and generally are as verbose as possible.  But I don’t mind that with The Hateful Eight, where the screeds of dialogue, restricted setting and limited number of cast members make you feel at times that you’re watching a stage play rather than a film – a play with some fine performers (Russell, Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth) and a play that’s practically Jacobean in its levels of blood-letting.  Pleasingly, with its snowbound landscapes and paranoid atmosphere where nobody is sure about anyone else’s identity, it also echoes elements of the greatest movie in Russell’s back catalogue, 1982’s John Carpenter-directed The Thing.

 

Tarantino’s previous movie was the 2012 western Django Unchained,  Before the decade was over, he also directed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) which, though set in 1969, contains sequences where we see its main character performing in 1950s and 1960s American TV western shows.  Tarantino obviously loves the genre, so will he treat to us to another fully-fledged western in the 2020s?  Go on, Quentin.  You know you want to.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk is writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional, leisurely-paced western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters).  It sees a posse of mismatched characters, led by Kurt Russell (again) as a slightly over-the-hill but still hard-assed sheriff and Richard Jenkins as his totally over-the-hill but still eager deputy, ride off into the wilderness in search of some people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.

 

But when the posse catches up with the kidnappers, who turn out to be a tribe of cave-dwelling, inbred, cannibalistic troglodytes, things take a sudden swerve into the macabre.  Zahler signals this swerve by showing a jaw-dropping act of violent horror that’ll have you pausing your DVD for a few minutes so you can recover.  (Folk who originally saw it in the cinema weren’t so lucky.  A mate of mine confessed he had to get up and walk out at that point.)

 

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Capably directed by Ti West, a filmmaker better known for his horror movies, In a Valley of Violence has a drifter and ex-soldier (Ethan Hawke) arrive in a frontier town where the sheriff (John Travolta) and his deputies run things more like gangsters than law-enforcers.  The most psychotic deputy (James Ransome) also happens to be Travolta’s son and he soon takes a violent dislike to Hawke.  Like The Salvation, In a Valley of Violence doesn’t offer anything that’s groundbreakingly new – but there are a few fresh twists in its plot.  Travolta’s character, for instance, isn’t an out-and-out villain but more a weak, conflicted character who’s swept along by escalating events; while it’s not the death of a person that compels Hawke to fight back and seek revenge, but the death of his pet dog.  Meanwhile, the supporting cast is enlivened by Karen Gillan as Ransome’s dumb and excitable girlfriend and Burn Gorman as an unsavoury mule-riding priest.

 

© N279 Entertainment / X-Filme / Momentum Pictures

 

Brimstone (2016)

After the Danes, Brits and Kiwis had made Westerns during the decade, it wasn’t altogether a surprise that the Dutch should have a go as well.  What is a surprise is how writer-director Martin Koolhoven makes Dutch western Brimstone both unremittingly grim and operatically over-the-top – it’s probably the least likeable film on this list but deserves respect for its determination to make audiences squirm, cringe and gawp.  Telling the tale of a mute woman (Dakota Fanning) pursued across the West by a demented church minister (Guy Pearce) who slaughters anyone who might offer her happiness and stability and has Terminator-like abilities to keep going no matter what injuries he suffers, Brimstone doesn’t flinch in depicting misogyny that’s bred not just by basic male barbarism but also by Bible-bashing religious hypocrisy.  The film stumbles near the end with Pearce finally getting his come-uppance in a hasty and unconvincing manner.  However, Koolhoven makes amends by sneakily adding a downbeat epilogue that shows, in Brimstone’s brutal milieu, that nobody gets a happy ending for too long.

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This list began with a Cohen Brothers film and with a nice symmetry it ends with one too, the western-anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  The opening story is also the title one, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as white-clad, singing and relentlessly garrulous gunfighter Buster Scruggs and showing the Cohens as their most inventive and boisterous.  However, the tone varies among the other segments.  All Gold Canyon, for example, about a grizzled old prospector (played by a grizzled old Tom Waits) digging up a remote, unspoilt valley in his belief that gold lies somewhere beneath it, is a more straightforward and conventional adaptation of a Jack London story; while Meal Ticket stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in a surreal Wild West reworking of Edogawa Ranpo’s grotesque tale The Caterpillar.  The film concludes with the supernaturally-tinged The Mortal Remains, in which five strangers find themselves on a stagecoach whose destination might just be the destination that ultimately awaits everyone.

 

Actually, The Mortal Remains, and Brimstone and Bone Tomahawk, plus other recent westerns like The Wind (2018) and Sophia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled (2017), suggest that as the Wild West drifts further off into history and away from the modern world, it may become a common setting for stories of the gothic, supernatural and macabre.

 

And that’s my list.  Looking at it now, I have to say thank goodness for Tarantino, the Cohen Brothers and various Europeans and Kiwis.  If it hadn’t been for them, there’d hardly have been any westerns made between 2010 and 2019.

 

© Caliban Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

You can’t Beta good western

 

(c) DMC Film / Film 4

 

The Beta Band were a Scottish group active from 1996 to 2004 whose songs showed a wide range of ideas and influences and incorporated a wide range of sounds and samples.  Appropriately, if not very concisely, their Wikipedia entry describes their oeuvre as ‘folkatronic, experimental music, downtempo, indie rock, Scottish, folk.’  I quickly heard about the Beta Band because their drummer, Robin Jenkins, had attended the same high school that I had in Scotland and so a lot of people I knew were talking about them.  But during the years that they were on the go, I never warmed to them.  I found them a bit too self-consciously eclectic and improvised.  Having a sound that seemed all over the place didn’t endear them to me, even if it was in the name of art.

 

Eleven years after they disbanded, I’ve recently listened to their double-album swan-song The Best of the Beta Band (2005) and I’ve decided that, actually, they were really good.  Maybe I’ve matured and my ears have become better attuned to quality.  Or maybe the Beta Band simply sound an awful lot better in retrospect, after a decade when the contemporary music scene has been dominated by the dire and ghastly Simon Cowell; and when the best new acts you can hope for seem to be ‘landfill indie’ guitar bands, whose best bits sound like the work of older and superior bands like Joy Division, the Jam and the Undertones and whose other bits sound like an anonymous sludge.

 

Now the Beta Band’s DJ, sampler and keyboard-player John Maclean has turned his hand to film-directing and he currently has a film on release, a western called Slow West.  As you might expect from someone involved in Maclean’s old musical combo, it’s an eclectic affair.  Its ingredients are more disparate than, say, the ingredients of those 1960s spaghetti westerns where Clint Eastwood would ride into town, mumble a few words, smoke a few cigars and kill a few people.  Slow West features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians; a pair of husband-and-wife Swedish bandits; a German social anthropologist who’s studying the Native American tribes; a bounty hunter masquerading as a clergyman; a haunted forest; some flashbacks to simpler, more innocent times in Scotland; and some slapstick comedy involving a washing line that wouldn’t have gone amiss in an old Laurel and Hardy movie.

 

Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.   He reins in – that’s a good phrasal verb to use when you’re talking about westerns – these elements and the result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but that nonetheless has a narrative that’s lean and linear.  Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, an innocent love-struck teenager who’s pursed the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic and across the 19th-century American West – where things become wilder and more dangerous the further west he goes.  He ends up hiring a mysterious, hard-bitten and not-necessarily-honourable bounty hunter called Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, to act as his guide and guardian.  It’s a wise move, as throughout the movie danger intrudes in a number of forms – other bounty hunters, outlaws, natives and not-to-be-trusted fellow travellers, all in possession of that volatile trigger-happiness that seems endemic to characters in western movies.

 

Actually, I read once that gunfights in the Wild West were rare because of the high price of ammunition and the low wages of the average cowboy.  Shoot-outs like the one at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath The Wild Bunch (1969) would probably have left the survivors bankrupt.

 

Slow West has a fine cast.  Fassbender is his usual dependable self and there are good performances too from Ben Mendelsohn as a shifty rival bounty hunter and Caren Pistorius as the girl whom Smit-McPhee is searching for.  You also catch a glimpse of Alex Macqueen, who played the oily Julius Nicholson in Armando Iannucci’s caustic political sitcom The Thick of It, in the role of Smit-McPhee’s unsavoury uncle back in Scotland.

 

(c) DMC Film / Film 4

 

But Smit-McPhee gives the film’s most engaging performance.  He’s memorably naïve and vulnerable – but stubbornly set in his ways.  In fact, he pursues his romantic dream with a hapless and somehow Scottish determination that reminds me of a similarly dreamy, hapless, Scottish and determined male adolescent, the title character played by John Gordon Sinclair in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981).  Yes, we’re talking Gregory’s Girl out west here.  That’s how odd this film is.

 

In one of the film’s best sequences, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee get wasted at their campfire with a bottle of absinthe.  Smit-McPhee goes for a wander, returns to the campfire and after a while realises that he’s sitting at someone else’s campfire.  It’s the sort of anecdote that a teenage lad would delight in telling, bragging to his mates about how drunk he got the other night.  The difference here is that the people whom the inebriated Smit-McPhee finds himself sharing a campfire with are ones who’d happily cut his throat.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee, incidentally, first made his mark in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  I find this disconcerting.  Why, it seems only yesterday that he was the little boy accompanying Viggo Mortensen through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing cannibals and other post-apocalyptic unpleasantness.  But today, he’s the romantic lead in a western.  God, they grow up so fast…

 

As you might expect from a film made by a musician, Slow West has a pleasingly lyrical feel to it.  But it isn’t as bloody and violent as the last western made with major creative input from a musician, 2006’s The Proposition, which was scripted by Nick Cave (and was also directed by John Hillcoat).  Slow West has a high body-count, admittedly, but there’s less viciousness involved than in The Proposition – people shoot each other, and people die, but often there seems a haphazard, accidentally quality to it all.  Too many guns are being waved around by people who really don’t know how to use them.  (This, of course, bears no resemblance to the situation in America today.)

 

It’s also a lot less grotty than The Proposition, a film whose verminous, lank-haired characters made you grateful that someone finally got around to inventing shampoo.  Maclean even includes a scene where Fassbender shaves Smit-McPhee with a knife-blade – clearly this is a vision of the Wild West where the blokes have time for their personal hygiene and grooming.

 

Do I have any criticisms of Slow West?  Well, the German character, Werner (Andrew Robertt), feels a little too similar to the one played by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2011) – although he’s not onscreen for long, so it hardly matters.  Also, while we never doubt that Fassbender’s character will eventually do the right thing, his transformation near the end to good guy, from morally-ambiguous guy, feels a little too abrupt and fast.  But generally, watching Slow West is a near-flawless way to spend 85 minutes of your time.

 

I’ve always been a big fan of western movies and it’s irked me that, during the last three decades, the genre has almost petered out of existence.  However, if filmmakers continue to make westerns very occasionally, and if the very occasional western that comes trotting along is as good as Slow West, I think I’ll be happy.