The Return to the Elegant Simplicity of Westerns on Film

It has been some time since the genre “Western” had prominence in pop cinema. Back in the days where John Ford found himself on the right side of the camera, Westerns were pretty abundant. They weren’t the dominating genre of the era, but I will say they have fallen from prominence. Something about the “shoot-em-up” gunslinger films of the past don’t resonate as well with the coffee and Facebook millennials. Go figure. My grandfather(s) appreciated the genre for its romantic, sweeping shots of the home on the plains, its epic gunfights in dusty saloons and its debonair heroes who stand alone in preventing villainous outlaws from taking over a town. There was something simple about it. And then things just got a lot more complex.

People wanted different things: they wanted richer characters and confrontations with more gravitas. They wanted more than a simple plot involving Cowboys against American southwestern backdrops shooting Colt 45’s, they wanted Star Wars (Lucas, 1977). Once the Production Codes, put in place in the 30’s to encourage morally wholesome cinema, were replaced by the MPAA in 1968, it cracked the levy on all sorts of creative expression. I joke about the Star Wars part, but there is a lot of truth to the new, “cutting-edge” cinema of the 70’s and the 80’s raising the bar of the ‘spectacle’ of cinema. And these kind of movies hurt Westerns.

Look at Tombstone (Cosmatos and Jarre, 1993), widely considered a critically AMAZING movie, which opened at just number four in its opening weekend at the box office. That was the early 90’s and that trend continued downward well into the 2000’s. Films like The Alamo (Hancock, 2004) had similar performance issues, and even the ones that had a hard #1 spot at the box office, like 2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (Mangold, 2007), failed to perform well enough to meet its budget. And let’s do ourselves all a favor and forget the royal train-wreck that was The Lone Ranger (Verbinski, 2013).

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Well, at least one of them was ashamed.

My point in addressing this downfall is that the genre had become something that it really wasn’t: overlong and complicated (see: The Lone Ranger). Westerns of the decade had tried so hard to be exciting in a way that they weren’t really fit to do. They became a hybrid-genre, which capitalized on the horror/comedy/science-fiction aspect and used the Western part as a way of coordinating costumes and location scouting. And it didn’t really help themTake Cowboys and Aliens (Favreau, 2011), for instance. The movie was number one at the box office that weekend, but can you call it a victory when you barely squeak past The Smurfs to achieve that spot?

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Chris Pine being told the grim history of the Western. Things looked bleak until you came around Chris.

Enter me, going with my father to see Hell or High Water (Mackenzie, 2016) last week. Now, going in, I didn’t know much about the film, other than my father was as excited to see it as most people were for The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015). The film centers around two brothers in rural Texas who rob banks so they can secure a family property for future generations. The older brother, played by Ben Foster, is a bit of a wild child – he is the evolved, mustache-twirling outlaw we are all so familiar with from classic Westerns. His brother, played by Chris Pine, is meant to be the outlaw with his head on his shoulders, the calculated risk-taker, if you will. As a duo, these two travel from small-town bank to small-town bank, stealing what meager cash they can and then moving on. The cat in this cat-and-mouse story is an archetypal sheriff (keeping it blunt), played by Jeff Bridges, who is reliably uncomplicated, one of the charms of his character and the film overall.

The best part of the film is that there isn’t much to detail. The plot is a basic cat-and-mouse chase against the American southwest backdrop. But it works. The characters are a bit sullen, which is appropriate considering their internal struggles, the relationships get a bit messy, but that is owed to a history seen offscreen and that’s the most complicated part about the whole film, which is why it is so good. Instead of trying to be a shoot-em-up Western with Fast and Furious-caliber car chases, they let all of the intensity ferment throughout the film until it ends with a well-orchestrated standoff. It took the simplicity which made the Westerns of the John Ford era so good, but removed the stale-ness which killed them off into the 70’s and 80’s and replaced it with bravery. After 1968, the genre didn’t take any new risks (save for Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde –which if we’re keeping score, was released IN 1968) and then it took way too many. It was like that sheltered kid in High School who goes off to College and becomes an alcoholic two weeks in. Well, Hell and High Water proved they had learned how to hold their liquor.

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Ah, a bunch of perfect nothingness. Gee, ain’t that a change of pace?

Texas prides itself on its values and you don’t need Joel Osteen to tell you that. Family is and always has been big in the south and this movie is no exception. The fraternal connection between the male characters blends two different takes on contemporary masculinity in Texas. Both are fairly emotionally reserved, but not without their sensitivities. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who wants to do anything to help his two boys, with whom he is severely estranged. Tanner (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who’s trying to find a purpose with his life outside jail. Both reflect on their difficult past, being abused by their parents as children and the different paths that each has taken since. Through it all, they’ve had each other, which plays heavily into the importance of family. In the end, that’s why they’re criminals. Their troubled past was born because of their family and all their crimes are for their family. Nevertheless, that classic Western trope of “small-tribe mentality” takes the form of family in this film and it works.

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Train-tracks only take you in one direction… the right direction. They also help with composition in this vast, beautiful landscape.

The quiet, sweeping, dusty roads in the film also play into the simplicity. As the old adage goes, everything is bigger in Texas! And one thing in particular takes the cake: space. Sure, Houston, Dallas, Austin – there are some major population centers found all over the Lone Star State! But it is also a freaking huge state. The state itself is bigger than a boatload of countries and roughly the same size as France, which leaves ample room for a lot of nothing. The absence of space has been a utilized part of the composition of art for centuries. As my old Art History Professor once taught me, the absence of space can sometimes say so much more about a piece than a overly-cluttered mess of composition. That is what is key for the Texas landscape: it is ripe with that beautiful absence. In this film, it is used to highlight the simplicity of the conflict. There are no natural disasters, roaming street gangs or groups of rainbow-colored superheroes, just an endless empty landscape, leaving ample room for the thoughts of the audience. This is where the Western excels and Hell or High Water adapts to the current day by taking advantage of the gritty reality of outlaw life – full of cursing, racism and beating on punk-ass millennials – without going overboard. You see? No need for William Fichtner eating hearts! (see: The Lone Ranger)

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That look when you know this is going to be a complete and utter trainwreck.

 

And, sure, you can argue that Hell or High Water didn’t perform well relative to box office position (it never cracked the top 10). But it didn’t have to. It kept things simple, elegant and interesting and STILL made a profit. That’s the key. Simplicity doesn’t work for every genre – just ask Christopher Nolan. But there’s a need for wide open spaces in Westerns, and perhaps that’s owed to their roots. They need space to think, space for plot development and space for the audience to explore.

After seeing Hell or Highwater, I was reminded of one of my other favorite Texas-set movies, Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas. If there’s any film that embodies all the physical space Texas has to offer in a film, it’s Paris, Texas. Released in 1984, the film is centered around a man named Travis Henderson (played by Harry Dean Stanton) who is looking to reconnect with his family throughout the desolate backdrop of the American southwest, ultimately ending in Paris, Texas. The film consists of a simple, quiet, almost incomprehensible plot, where details are seldom given in the overabundance of space. Travis doesn’t even utter a word for the first good chunk of the film. And when he finally does, the audience listens. “Paris“, he says. He wants to go to Paris, Texas, and why? Well, ultimately, it all boils down to the same simple motive behind Hell or High Water: family. Travis Henderson wants to return to the town because of property there where he believes he was conceived. It’s a simple concept with depth. It’s a story we all can relate to: where do we come from and why do we, for some reason, care to go back? The film then takes us on the quiet journey of a man marching through empty landscapes trying to accomplish one simple goal. Towards the end of the film, Travis has a conversation with a woman that still stands as one of the most intimate pieces of cinema I have ever witnessed. It’s just him and this woman in a small space together. When he does start talking, however, you listen. He talks and because he so artfully had utilized his silence throughout the entirety of the film, he made it so that when he does speak, it has significance. The artful use of space permeates every layer of the the film, from the Texas landscape, to the characters and the dialogue. It is able to give its own spin on the thought that everything is bigger in Texas by saying so little.

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The art of speaking without dialogue – it’s abundant in the southwest!

Westerns excel when they explore what heartland, rural America is all about. They take the best of the genre and find a way to make them appealing to contemporary audiences, without involving laser guns or dancing sheep (I’m looking at you Seth MacFarlane). They capture the simplicity of the area and make use of all of the space that they have. Texas embodies this heartland charm when it loses all its unnecessary adornments; it shows its true cinematic colors (turns out it’s not actually sepia).

Now, that’s not to say Wes Anderson’s Texas or Richard Linklater’s Texas are renditions which are any less true to the Lone Star state. But they are filmmakers that venture into other facets of Texas, exploring the diversity it has to offer. There will always be Austin and so far, it has done an excellent job of staying weird. There are a number of directors who have shown us that side of Texas and how it’s not just a old fashioned red state (like Linklater). But when we are looking for a heavy dose of the West in the most traditional sense, there’s no place like Texas to convey an elegant simplicity. And with films like Hell or High Water to bring the genre back to its roots, I have great faith that there will be lots more to come.

It’s only a matter of time before the over-saturation of contemporary cinema has its backlash. As far as this genre goes, I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing we’ve reached it’s nadir (crosses fingers) and there’s nowhere to go but west now.

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The nadir. We can only pray we move in whatever direction takes us as far away from this as possible.

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