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

 

Hatefully yours, Quentin

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

You may be one of those people who regard filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a let-down.  You thought his early movies like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction showed tremendous potential and nodded approvingly at 1997’s Jackie Brown, which was calmer, less flashy and more reflective in tone and suggested an increasing maturity on Tarantino’s part.  But then you rolled your eyes at his 21st-century output: the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004, Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012.

 

All that adolescent, cheesy stuff that you thought Tarantino had shaken off with Jackie Brown was suddenly back – squared, perhaps even cubed.  Copious references and homages to trashy old B and Z-grade genre movies.  Sequences of such violence and bloodiness that you wondered if he filmed them with windscreen-wipers fitted on his camera lenses.  Barrages of unsavoury racial epithets, particularly the n-word, usually fired off by or fired off at Samuel L. Jackson.  And scenes that went on and on and on because the characters in them never shut up, Tarantino being infatuated with the sound of his own voice (or his own dialogue), with the result that his films were hours longer than they needed to be.

 

Quentin, you’ve commonly thought over the past decade, I’m not angry with you.   I’m just disappointed.

 

Well, if you’re one of those people, I have good news.  You’re going to detest his latest, The Hateful Eight – ‘The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino’ as it’s grandly described on the credits – because in it he happily commits the above sins against mature filmmaking all over again.

 

That’s bad news for you, actually.  But it’s good news for me because I like the schlock-movie references, bloodshed and relentless talking in Tarantino’s movies.  (Admittedly, I get a bit fed up hearing the n-word all the time, but I suppose I can forgive him one over-indulgence.)  So I went home from seeing The Hateful Eight well-satisfied.

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

The movie is Tarantino’s second western and it takes place sometime after the American Civil War.  We meet half of the titular eight in the film’s first two ‘chapters’.  They are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his unladylike lady prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former Confederate militiaman called Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to a town where, improbably, he’s just been appointed sheriff.  Warren and Mannix appear at different times to hitch a ride in Ruth’s private stagecoach, which makes him suspect they’re in cahoots to steal his prisoner and lift the bounty-money for her.  However, the animosity that develops between Warren and Mannix because of their war records – Warren served as a Yankee officer and was responsible for a lot of Confederate deaths – suggests that a secret alliance is unlikely.  That or they’re very good actors.

 

Chapter three sees the stagecoach arrive, just before a blizzard makes further travel impossible, at a store-cum-refuge in the middle of nowhere called Minnie’s Haberdashery.  And here the rest of the eight are introduced: Bob (Demian Bichir), a cheery Mexican who says he’s running the haberdashery for Minnie while she’s off visiting her mother; Mobray (Tim Roth), an aristocratic and garrulous Englishman who professes to be a hangman; Gage (Michael Madsen), a surly and solitary cowboy who spends his time scribbling his memoirs into a notebook; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sour old man whom Mannix and Warren recognise as a Confederate general of considerable repute or notoriety, depending on which side of the war they fought on.

 

Ruth is soon seething with paranoia because he sees these four strangers as additional possible threats to his prisoner and bounty.  But plenty of other questions emerge.  What’s really happened to Minnie and her staff at the haberdashery?  What became of the son whom Smithers is now in the territory searching for – and did Warren play a role in his death?  Is the letter that Warren keeps producing from his pocket and flashing around truly proof of a friendship he once had with Abraham Lincoln?  And is anyone in the snowbound haberdashery actually telling the truth about who they are and what they’re up to?

 

Chapter three ends with violence and the film’s first fatality.  By chapter four the blood is flowing freely and during chapters five and six…  Well, this is a Tarantino movie.  You know what to expect.

 

Several critics have pointed to Agatha Christie as a major inspiration for The Hateful Eight and dubbed it Ten Little Indians-out-west.  But the main template for the film’s plot, wherein a group stuck in a confined space try to identify one or more hostile imposters hiding among them, is surely Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs.  This is underscored by the fact that two of the original ‘Dogs’, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, reappear here.

 

I should say that the film’s also reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, partly because of the hidden-imposters plot, partly because of the bleak snowy setting and partly because of Kurt Russell being in it.  Russell, of course, played McCready, the embattled hero of The Thing.  Indeed there’s a scene in The Hateful Eight where one character forces the others at gunpoint to line up against a wall while he tries to figure out who the enemy is; which evokes the famous scene in The Thing where Russell ties up his remaining colleagues prior to doing a blood-test that’ll determine who’s human and who’s secretly got tentacles.

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

The way the common criticisms of him are framed, Tarantino just can’t win.  On one hand, it’s fashionable to deride him as a shallow, sensationalist gobshite whose work is a monument to his trashy taste in movies.  Yet his modus operandi is in many ways quite highbrow.  As an artist he’s as literary as he is cinematic, writing film-scripts like playwrights write plays.  He defines his characters as much by what they say as by what they do and how they look.  He takes genuine pleasure in the ebb and flow, and the cut and thrust, of dialogue.  And he gives his scenes a theatrical length that allows his actors and actresses space to properly act.  Incidentally, he also insists on dividing his films into ‘chapters’, which is a rather literary habit.

 

Of course, in doing this, he lays himself open to the other line of attack, i.e. that his films are uneconomical, excessively talky and never know when to stop.  (For the record, The Hateful Eight has an imposing running time of three hours and seven minutes.)

 

But if, like me, you appreciate a movie where words – as opposed to, say, CGI – are the thing that matters, you’ll find much to cherish in The Hateful Eight.  It helps that the words here come out of the mouths of a first-rate cast.  Jackson is his usual inimitable self as Marquis Warren (a character named after the writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren who specialised in westerns, both movies like 1951’s Only the Valiant, 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun and 1969’s Charro! and TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke).  Russell and Bruce Dern are good value too and I suspect Tarantino cast them because of their past western credentials.  Russell played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993) and Dern made several westerns in his youth, including 1972’s The Cowboys, at the end of which he shot John Wayne in the back – the scumbag.

 

But the most memorable performances are those by Walton Goggins as the gormless and unreliable Mannix, a man who needs to keep his limited number of wits about him if he’s to survive events in Minnie’s Haberdashery; by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth’s prisoner Domergue, a sly, cackling and occasionally rabid creature whom you really wouldn’t want to be handcuffed to; and by Tim Roth as the delightfully pompous Mobray, who seems to channel Richard Harris’s English Bob character in Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 western The Unforgiven.  Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen make less of an impression, though, never quite managing to elbow their way past the other, larger-than-life characters to claim part of the limelight for themselves.

 

I didn’t feel breathless after seeing The Hateful Eight in the way that I did after seeing Pulp Fiction 22 years ago; but I’d still rate it as Tarantino’s best movie since the 1990s.  It’s more substantial than the schlock-obsessed Kill Bill movies and Death Proof.  And it makes more sense than Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which seemed to abandon the laws of logic whenever it suited Tarantino’s storytelling.  That said, I did detect one lapse of logic in it – when the tensions that’ve simmered between the Yankee Warren and the Confederate Mannix and Smithers boil over halfway through the film, you expect repercussions afterwards; but there aren’t repercussions and this sub-plot abruptly disappears.  Otherwise, and especially compared to its two predecessors, The Hateful Eight’s plot is fairly cogent.

 

The Hateful Eight won’t win Tarantino new fans or win back the respect of those who went off him post-Jackie Brown.  But if, after nearly a quarter-century, you still have a fondness for le cinéma Quentin-ique, this should keep you satisfied till the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – which will hopefully be due sometime around 2020.

 

By the way, I like this picture of him with Miss Piggy.

 

From muppet.wikia.com