Friday, November 30, 2018

Nouveau Western Surrealism

The release of the Netflix film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), written and directed by the Coen brothers, contributes to a Western film renaissance marked by what I call Nouveau Western Surrealism, a recent sub-genre that blends classic Western realism and romanticism with touches of surrealism, cruel irony, dark humor, and sardonic manipulations of standard tropes into something entirely new. Though I prefer more traditional Westerns (Open Range and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have been the best Westerns of this century’s first decade), I love Westerns and I gladly embrace this millennial sub-genre.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology of six Western tales, presented as stories from an old book, offers some gritty scenes of realism: burying a deceased traveler along the Oregon Trail; panning for gold; setting up a traveling show in grungy mining towns – along with large doses of absurdity and grim irony: a singing cowboy; a bank robber rescued from hanging by an Indian attack; an armless, legless poet reciting Shakespeare in a traveling show; a stagecoach acting as Charon’s boat to the kingdom of the dead.

Scruggs comes to us not long after the wide theatrical release of The Sisters Brothers (2018), directed by Jacques Audiard, another realism/surrealism hybrid starring Joaquin Phoenix, the perfect performer for Westerns of this ilk, and John C. Riley, whose style fits wonderfully into the film’s realism. The opening scene – a classic trope – stages a gunfight at a cabin, but we see it only as flashes of gunfire in pitch blackness. The film waxes surrealistic as the Sisters brothers are tasked with appropriating the invention of a scientist (Jake Gyllenhaal in memorably quirky style): a gold-finding method that involves adding chemicals to a stream to illuminate the gold nuggets - and it works with grim results. When the Sisters brothers strive to change their ways and hang up their hired guns, they must evade constant pursuit by bounty hunters, but the film ends with an amazingly touching moment of homecoming and motherly love that is one of the best sequences I've seen this year.

Shortly before The Sisters Brothers came the limited release of Damsel (2018), directed by David and Nathan Zellner, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. In this case, the story is more surrealism than classic realism as Samuel’s quest to wed his damsel in distress leads to strange irony and a grim look at life in the Old West. The opening scene – out in the middle of nowhere - in which a preacher, broken by hardship, plans to abandon the West - is pure surrealism portraying the harsh truth about life on the frontier. The straight cut to Robert Pattinson as he zealously engages in a boot-stomping dance with the girl that he loves is a beautiful moment. Indeed, Pattinson’s oddball performance is engaging throughout, and Wasikowska aptly portrays a strong damsel who needs no rescue from distress. While the film includes humorous bits of Western deconstruction, it also includes quirky interludes that are nothing but ludicrous and disappointing. The film ends with an enigmatic metaphor.

Bone Tomahawk (2015), directed by S. Craig Zahler, makes a point of distinguishing itself as a different kind of Western that blends action-oater tropes with a bizarre story. Here a traditional quest to rescue a rancher’s wife leads to a desperate struggle with stone-age cannibals. Thus, traditional Western tropes, carried along by the performances of Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson as traditional Western character types, meet elements of horror and absurdity. Watching this film, with its very disturbing scene of cannibalistic butchery in preparation for the feast, it was clear to see that the Westerns had undergone a distinct metamorphosis.

Although most of the new Westerns make grand use of classic Western locations, Slow West (2015), directed by John Maclean, makes one think, “Whose woods these are, I think I do not know.” These woods sure don’t look Western - the film was shot mostly in New Zealand and Scotland. This ironic film features Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Ben Mendelsohn is the tale of a boy who comes all the way from Scotland in search of the girl he loves – only to meet violent characters and a tragically ironic end. In most of these Westerns, the West is a cruel place. This film, however, ends with the kind of twist typical of the sub-genre. Ultimately, the West is good to Michael Fassbender, the opportunistic bounty hunter who has protected and come to love the boy, - and he ends his elegiac narration with "O, for the West."

Ethan Hawke and John Travolta recently donned Western duds to play in Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence (2016), an enjoyably gritty and atmospheric Western featuring standard tropes and some tense action. Filmed in New Mexico, the film is an attempt at pure Western classicism though it falls short of achieving significance. Nevertheless, the locations are bleakly rugged and the action is tense. What I appreciate is that here is a film that came about because of its risk-taking director and a versatile actor, Ethan Hawke, willing to throw himself into any kind of project.

Even the Danes have gotten into the act with the violent The Salvation (2014), directed by Kristian Levring, in which a Danish settler (Mads Mikkelsen) goes on the vengeance trail after the murder of his wife and son. Although filmed in South Africa, the film features ample Western action and the performance of Eva Green.

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper, is another attempt at a straightforward Western for the new millennium. The film is modern revisionist in its apology for the treatment of Native Americans – though it goes further by pointing out the cruelties perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Somewhat slow and ambling like a Howard Hawks film, but majestic and violent like a John Ford film, Hostiles features Christian Bale as an Indian-hating cavalryman ordered to escort a Cheyenne family back to their homeland. Along the way they rescue a frontier woman (Rosamund Pike) whose family has been killed by renegades. As a reflection more of millennial, wishful-thinking tolerance than nineteenth century attitudes, the two Indian haters ultimately embrace the Cheyenne as humans and end up protecting them from violence.

No matter the anachronisms, the surrealism, the cruel ironies, the sardonic humor, the downright weirdness – the new Westerns embrace much of the classic Western spirit. These films make the best of their outdoor settings. They employ a musical score that is often traditional. They acknowledge the raw violence and the ruggedness of everyday life out West. They appreciate the drama of a well-staged shootout. And they make effective use of that picaresque style of many Western stories in which men and women on horseback head down the dusty trail toward whatever they might encounter over the next rise. “O, for the West.”

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