“I always wanted to be the cowboy hero that lone voice in the wilderness fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth, and justice. And in my heart of hearts I still track the remnants of that dream wherever I go in my never ending ride into the setting sun.” -Bill Hicks
Compared to twenty or thirty years ago, the Western Genre doesn’t pack the same level of draw power. Maybe being dragged through two unwinnable wars in the Middle East, a Recession that still affects us to this day and the works of Michael Bay have left us jaded as film goers. It’s hard to connect with the image of the cowboy riding from town to town, fighting injustices and for personal honour, out for what’s right and never taking a dollar fee. This, however, is the John Wayne Western, good guys in white Stetsons that thankfully Sergio Leone, George Roy Hill and Bloody Sam Peckinpah had spent years beating with a baseball bat, with Clint Eastwood finally driving a spike through its heart when he made Unforgiven (1992). These are the Revisionist Westerns that were born out of the cynicism of the ‘Nam, Watergate, and a whole slew of scandals; counter culture and New Wave. It still amazes me today that so few Westerns are made that when one is produced a great deal of fuss is played over it. That said, the Westerns that we have been getting since 2000 have been some of the most interesting that have been made. Not necessarily the best in terms of plot but definitely the most interesting, with sweeping vistas, ballet gunfights and lonely wanderers.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), of the bat, not one of the best movies here. Its plot is all over the place with El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) quest for revenge, Sands (Johnny Depp) insanely complicated plot to stage and destroy a coup and Barillo (Willem Defoe) playing every villain Defoe has ever played.
Why is it on the list? Because it captures the gonzo style of Spaghetti Westerns better than any movie I’ve seen to date. Yes the characters are two dimensional and the gunfights so over the top they need a CAA plan and that’s the point. It is the heir apparent to A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), The Big Gundown (1966) and Death Rides a Horse (1967). It may be an excuse to put Banderas and Depp in front of explosions but it’s a well-executed and pretty excuse to have Banderas and Depp stand in front of explosions. The gunfights are tightly choreographed modern dance pieces set against the blazing Mexico skyline.
I don’t know what depresses me more, the fact The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) passed me by when it came out over ten years ago, or the fact that it seemed to pass everyone else by as well. It didn’t even Break Even at the box office which is a shame because not only is it one of Tommy Lee Jones best performances, it’s his directorial debut.
The accidental killing of Estrada (Julio Cedillo) by US Boarder Agent Norton (Barry Pepper) leads to the dead man’s friend Perkin (Tommy Lee Jones) seeking out revenge on Norton but don’t get ahead of yourself, this isn’t going to be an all guns blazing affair. Perkin’s revenge is also the chancel for salvation and redemption for Norton as he kidnaps and forces him to aid him in returning Estrada’s body home to Mexico across the US border.
The movie experiments with flash backs, narrative perspectives that weaves a story of murder, friendship and redemption across the TexMex border. Shot beautifully with wide angle lenses and burning colour pallet, it captures the remoteness and splendour of the border making the movie feel big and, like the classic Westerns, teleports you into the sun baked Chihuahuan Desert. The surrealistic of the encounters along with the way add only to the experience. This isn’t just a damn fine Western, it’s one of the best movies that you haven’t seen.
I was racking my brains over this next one. I wanted to include a Coen Brothers film but trying to decide between No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010) is a tough one. There’s a good chance most people have seen No Country while only a few might have seen True Grit.
But No Country wins out in the end for several valid reasons. Frist, it’s a Western. And a Noir. And at times a Slasher. Chigurh (Javier Bardem) feels like he’s less the unstoppable badass and more the unstoppable bogyman that lived in your childhood wardrobe, the terrifying bastard love child between Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes and Pinhead. And no, I’m not sorry for giving your brain that image. It’s a movie filled with flailed and failed redemption, undignified death and trampled justice. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
From the same year though, we also get Sukiyaki Western Django (スキヤキ・ウエスタン ジャンゴ) (2007). Now let me be the first to say that Takashi Miike is a masterful director and has produced visually impressive work but I’m still putting a restraint order against him to protect my family.
Right, some of you will be wondering why I’ve chosen Sukiyaki Western Django rather than Django Unchained (2013) and yes Unchained is a great movie. It’s just not a Django movie. Sukiyaki is. Like a good Spaghetti Western it mixes cowboy movies with samurai films, gang feuds in the foreground, revenge tale in the back and the lust for gold throughout. With Takashi’s visual style we are treated to epic and over the top gun fights, sword fights, gun and sword fight, and a level of carnage Hollywood seems scared to do including the gatling gun in the coffin.
One thing this list has a lack of is the traditional setting of the Old West and that’s good. It shows the genre can evolve beyond the national borders of its setting. Westerns can be set anywhere and in anytime. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great ones set in the Old West, Appaloosa (2008), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) are fine examples but so long as the ideal of a Western, the lone figure travelling from place to place, running from their past, looking for revenge or money, gangs, corrupt ranchers and beleaguered townsfolk, disappearing the moment the guns stop sounding then a Western can be set anytime or anywhere. Which is why Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is one of the best modern Westerns.
It’s not just Fury Road, all the Mad Max movies are Westerns. The vast majority of movies set in post-apocalyptic dystopias are by and large Westerns, be it A Boy and His Dog (1975), The Road (2009) or The Book of Eli (2010) are just as much a Western as the Young Guns (1988) and High Planes Drifter (1973). Max is the Man with No Name, travelling across the Out Back and getting pulled into events that he either wants no part of or sees a profit in it for himself. I’ve said several times that Westerns have over the top level of action, and a cross country road chase with a flame throwing guitar is as over the top you will get till the make a Morphsuit that lactates PCP and Bullets. Max is forever walking away at the end into the eternal sunset and away from the past that led him to that place, finding a little more redemption along the way.
There is a tendency to see Westerns as a relic of a bygone age of cinema, but given our cynical times I think we need the Western again. The same thing happened at the end of the Sixties and the reward was an age in which we got The Dollars Trilogy. The Nineties provided us with greats such as the arthouse Dead Man (1995). We can only hope and look forward to see how the Western Genre will progress and grow as it sits tall in the saddle .