Many things define a Western. The time period, the costumes, the gunfights, the photogenic landscapes; but perhaps the central tenet of the Western is the theme of civilizing (“Americanizing”) the frontier West, molding it into a society of proper law and order. Three films from this fall approach this genre—which has been largely ignored in recent years—in different ways. The Western may not be dead after all.
3:10 TO YUMA
The most traditional Western in a long time, 3:10 to Yuma keeps intact all the genre's conventions. It feels as if it were lifted directly from the fifties with simply a more violent tone and more rapid editing than what could have existed back in those days, obviously in part because it is a remake of a 1950s Western. The widescreen vistas, the eccentric villain, the gunfights—it’s all here. But what is most surprising about the film is the very tradition of its traditional style. The film is astoundingly unaware of its rarity in an era when there is hardly a Western at all. 3:10 to Yuma exercises all the genre conventions with a natural ease of storytelling, as if Westerns like this were just as common today as they were fifty years ago.
Most Westerns made in recent years are overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek, always trying a little too hard to give the genre a new look and contemporary feel (Wild Wild West is one of the more extreme examples of this). Even movies like Tombstone and Unforgiven seemed to always be shouting at the audience, “Look! Look! I’m a Western!” But 3:10 to Yuma has such a convincing atmosphere, complete with compelling dialogue and straightforward performances by Russell Crowe’s villainous Ben Wade and Christian Bale’s tragically heroic Dan Evans, that allows the audience to be so subsumed into the story as to not realize that they are watching a type of genre film that hasn’t found success in its classic, traditional form since the early 1960s.
The theme of civilizing the West is as classical as ever here: in order for law and order to be established and civilization to evolve, miscreants like Wade must be abolished from the landscape. This scenario can be found in dozens of other Westerns, yet the film thankfully has no Tarantinoesque wink-wink tendencies referencing the classics, allowing the audience to enjoy it on its own terms. The film arguably contradicts the common notion (from studios, audiences and filmmakers) that Westerns cannot exist in their classic form in our era. The Western, 3:10 to Yuma argues, is far from dead.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
The Assassination of Jesse James can be argued as an anti-Western. While the film has the time period, costumes, and photography right, everything from the minimalist score to the lengthy title to the quiet, meditative pace to the omniscient narration that sounds like it came from a MasterCard commercial mold this epic into something far different. The film is a thorough deconstruction of the most mythic of Western myths, the James gang. Jesse James has been portrayed many, many times in film, but never quite like this. The reimagined James is a man who is very aware that his myth and reputation far exceed the flesh and blood of the man himself—and by questioning the myth of Jesse James, the myth of the Western itself is disrupted.
Jesse James is portrayed as a fractured depressive, torn by every innocent man he has killed and robbed. He is far from the 19th century American Robin Hood he is most often thought to be. We see James through the eyes of Robert Ford, a naïve youngster who believes the myth he hears about in stories is the same as the man himself. Ford actually believes in the myth of the West, and he suffers for his dire misconception. The lengthy title explicitly states what the end of their relationship will be, so the film doesn’t rely on a suspenseful narrative trajectory, allowing the audience to become involved with the quiet relationship of James and Ford instead of any normal storyline. And, as the title suggests, Ford hardly has the redeemable qualities of the traditional Western hero.
James’ assassination is the result of a childish rivalry. Unlike the justice brought to Ben Wade, the ridding of James from society is not part of the civilizing process. Ford is a pawn of the government, and is therefore a victim of such a process, suggesting corruption and hypocrisy in American justice. The notion of classical hero and villain are subverted with the ways James and Ford are portrayed. Evidenced by the way the American people react to the assassination, James’ death doesn’t bring any order to society, instead only furthering disorder, suggesting that America was never civilized under such simplistic moral values, and Americans instead prefer the myth of the man who stole and killed for fame rather than the man who supposedly brought justice.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Many will argue that the latest from the Coen brothers is not at all a Western, and in many ways they are right: the film is wrong in terms of the time period, the costuming, the weaponry, and the film doesn’t contain any form of a classic Western narrative. But the landscape is definitely there, as Roger Deakins’ camera manages to capture the Western horizon beautifully. The cowboy hats, West Texas setting, and violence also vaguely remind one of a Western.
Yet No Country for Old Men attacks the notion of the civilizing process in a way that only a Western set in modern day could. While the forward-moving part of its narrative follows a unique cat-and-mouse chase between Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn and Javier Bardem’s Chigurh, Tommy Lee Jones’ almost completely inactive Sheriff Bell has a lucid, contemplative, existential presence throughout the film that hardly does anything to move the narrative forward, but brings the film’s themes to the forefront. Bell laments over a world that he sees to be getting worse and worse, and he exercises his angst through the case of a drug run gone wrong. And as Llewlyn’s situation gets more hopeless, Bell becomes more complacent.
What Bell is upset over could be read as the de-civilization of the West, that all the law and order and clear morality that once existed is quickly falling into chaos and anarchy. Bell lays out at the opening’s voice-over narration that the world is getting progressively worse, and he discusses the decline of morality with each passing generation with another aging sheriff towards the film's end. Yet Bell has a conversation later with a wheelchair-bound old man who has an alternative, less nostalgic philosophy: the world has always been unjust. Either the West is being de-civilized, or it never was in the first place. That the film drops off with no real closure suggests something of a validity in both these notions.
There is no traditional Western hero in either Llewelyn or Bell, but there is an easily identifiable villain of No Country for Old Men. Chigurh claims to have principles, but not in the admirable way that even the vilest of classic Western villains do (ie. Ben Wade). There is no notion of honor or bravery in the new West, just a Darwinian natural selection that gives no mercy to the weak or kind. Cigurh’s principles rely instead on a twisted definition of fate that allows him to kill virtually any person he wants for no reason—he doesn’t even spare women. In contrast to the classical Western villain who is ultimately brought to justice, Chigurh continues to freely roam the landscape. Chigurh’s freedom is the sign of signs that the West is in a state of inevitable de-civilization, delving into a world where justice, like the myth of the West, is dead.
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