The Western is everything Hollywood used to be good at, and everything Hollywood doesn’t try to do now. The Western has action scenes, but it doesn’t quite make sense to call classic Westerns “action” movies. Like, the closing scene of The Wild Bunch features about five John Wicks of chaingun bulletblood, but most of The Wild Bunch is tough old guys talking. Old: That’s another word at the core of the Western. Old men, grown adults with a past they’re trying to forget: The Western seems to require a movie culture that hasn’t invented teenagers yet.
People who don’t watch Westerns probably think they’re built on easy morality: White hats vs. black hats, white people playing cowboys and white people playing Native Americans. This is maybe true overlooking the grand sweep of the Western genre throughout cinema history, but it doesn’t apply to the best ones. Not Johnny Guitar, not Red River, not Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, not The Furies, not anything by Sergios Corbucci or Leone. John Ford’s the most famous and maybe the most boring of the great Western filmmakers, but he could break weird when he wanted to: You can watch The Searchers today and pretend John Wayne’s the bad guy, and you can watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a Western about how the whole Western genre is built on lies we all agreed upon.
What I’m saying is: The top-level Western movies are usually morally complicated in ways that go deeper than “will the superhero with his name in the title decide to save the city from the British-accented Evil Thing?” And in a weird way, the Western demands location shooting, or at least some believable small-town sets built for pre-shootout strolling. It’s easy to complain about digital effects now, but it’s also easy to point out how that the worst Westerns of the modern era are the special-effects blockbusters: Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, The Lone Ranger. Throw in last year’s spoof-y A Million Ways to Die in the West, and you’ve got a starter list defining Box Office Underperformance in the Last Decade-Plus.
This might lead you to say, as cinephiles often do, that the Western is dead, or that it’s bad box office, or that it’s somehow fallen from grace. Weirdly, the opposite might be true: The last 10 years might be the best decade for Westerns since the ’60s/’70s crossover phase of Peckinpah and Leone and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and El Topo and early Eastwood and John Wayne swan-songing in The Shootist.
Consider: 2005 brought Brokeback Mountain, which reconfigured the usual genre subtext (actual frontier = moral frontier) into something excitingly new (actual frontier = sexual frontier). The same year brought the arty Aussie Western The Proposition, which is like a spaghetti Western pumped full of Lithium, and the second season of Deadwood, a slow-motion portrait of the civilizing frontier and one of the great achievements of our species.
But 2007 was the legitimate bumper crop. No Country for Old Men got all the money and the accolades. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford got none of the money but more long-run accolades—it looks more like one of the true great works of cinema every year. Some people include There Will Be Blood, which is a Western the way Great Gatsby is a romantic comedy. I always need to mention 3:10 to Yuma, which deserves rare-unicorn credit for featuring an utterly charming performance by Russell Crowe and an unshowy performance by Christian Bale. (And they both play second fiddle to Ben Foster.)
3:10 to Yuma was the second film adapted from a very old Elmore Leonard short story. A few years later, another Leonard short story was transformed into Justified. Leonard’s best work was often half Western and half crime thriller. Most Westerns say that civilization killed the frontier; Leonard seemed to think the frontier was always there, hiding in snappy-dialogue’d criminal subcultures. Justified always felt a little bit classical Western and neo-Western—a little bit Ford and a little bit Peckinpah—and its great series finale featured both a showdown and an ambiguous bullet-free reckoning between the forces of good and evil, the Western equivalent of having your Ford and eating your Peckinpah, too.
While Justified was on, there was Django Unchained, a tantalizing (people’s) history lesson where the good guy is a slave-turned-gunslinger and the bad guys are rich white dudes. Django won Oscars and over $400 million globally. There was also Rango, a sumptuous animated spoof that’s also a thoughtful homage; that is, everything Gore Verbinski tried to do again with The Lone Ranger, except The Lone Ranger was 40 minutes longer and powers of 10 worse. And there was Meek’s Cutoff, which does for Western gender norms what Brokeback Mountain did for Western sexual norms—and Michelle Williams in Meek‘s feels like a no-nonsense cousin to Hailee Steinfeld in the Coens’ funny-tough True Grit. And don’t forget about The Walking Dead, which kicked off with the most Western of Western iconography (Lone Gunman Sheriff Rides Horse Into Bad Town) and keeps pushing its characters into contrived-but-potent frontier-ethics quandaries (Carol on Walking Dead = John Wayne in The Searchers.)
Westerns aren’t huge, but they also aren’t going away. Coming soon is The Hateful Eight by Tarantino and The Revenant by Iñárritu with DiCaprio, and the interesting-sounding In a Valley of Violence, and the bananas-sounding Bone Tomahawk, and Natalie Portman’s long-in-the-works-and-maybe-a-bit-troubled Jane Got a Gun.
Michael Fassbender was supposed to be in Jane Got a Gun, but he dropped out in March 2013. Fassbender has a thing for Westerns; he’s the only guy having fun in 2010’s Jonah Hex, and now he’s the sort-of star of Slow West, the weirdest movie you have to see this summer. Slow West came out quietly in about 50 theaters last month and earned some good notices—Nashawaty said it has “a mythic beauty and a vein of melancholy” and accurately compared the riotous climax to Terrence Malick doing The Wild Bunch. It’s already On Demand and Direct TV and whatever; it’s worth seeing on the big screen, but it would play well on an Apple Watch, if that’s easier for you.
I say “sort-of” because the main character in Slow West appears to be Scottish teen Jay Cavendish, who’s in America searching for his lady love Rose and her father. He meets Irish bounty hunter Silas (Fassbender) and they set off together on a quest that features a globalized parade of tangential mini-bosses. There’s the married Swedes with a secret or three. There’s Silas’ old bounty-hunter boss-guru, Payne, brought to scenery-chewing life by sudden breakout Australian actor Ben Mendolsohn. There’s a German anthropologist named Werner, who is either an homage to Werner Herzog or a goof on Werner Herzog. The nicest character in the movie is played by The Hound from Game of Thrones. It’s a romantic fairy tale, a buddy movie, a coming-of-age film in the worst way, and occasionally a flat-out spoof, and it builds to a great action sequence that reminds you that simple, clear film editing was maybe the first great special effect.
Did I mention it’s only 84 minutes long? I’m not even sure if that running time includes the credits.
The movie’s not perfect: The narration feels like an after-the-fact addition. For such a short movie, the pacing is leisurely—and your twee radar may go off when Jay finds a few Congolese musicians in the middle of nowhere and says a few words of fluent French. Fassbender’s credited as an executive producer on the movie, and he deserves credit for giving himself the least showy role in the movie—maybe the German-Irish actor just wanted to try out a Scottish-Canadian accent—but if his Silas is charming, he’s also an undeniable sentimentalized vision of a badass with a heart of gold.
Director John Maclean is Scottish, and he shot Slow West in New Zealand, with a cast of people from everywhere besides America. When you hear an American accent in Slow West, it’s usually a bad sign: The first sequence is Jay running afoul of soldiers hunting Native tribes for money. You could look at this as an extension of the craze for Euro-Westerns in the ’60s and ’70s, which transformed the already-hyperbolic history of the Western genre into crazed bad-behavior operas and goofy-profound political theater. (Corbucci’s delightful The Mercenary is a movie where an Italian-American plays a Mexican peasant who hires a Polish bounty hunter played by an Italian actor to co-lead an underclass revolution. Somehow, they wind up in a three-way standoff with Jack Palance, with one participant dressed in a clown suit.)
Slow West has some politics, and some romance, and it treats the heavy stuff lightly and the lighthearted stuff like myth. And it’s worth seeing just to watch Fassbender—an actor who’s generally cast in good and bad movies as an inhuman Messiah or a suffering martyr or a monster—just be a charmingly smiling presence onscreen. You watch Slow West and you hope he’ll do another Western. The movie’s a lark with the weight of a condor: You wonder how high Fassbender and Maclean will fly when they get serious.
Want to talk best-worst westerns? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.