Saturday, June 19, 2010

2000-10 In Westerns - The Missing

Every single time a new Western gets released, I read a review or profile piece somewhere which contains this statement: The Western is Dead.
Well, to massively oversimplify, and speaking relatively and in purely commercial terms, this may be true. In the 1930s and 40s, the Western genre was Hollywood's staple diet, as the studios churned out a relentless stream of cheap and cheerful programmers, B-features and serials. By the 1950s, the industry had changed and Westerns were less popular. They had also gone more mainstream and attracted big budgets, big directors and big stars. Back then, a lot of Westerns still got made by Hollywood. This continued into the 1960s, when the revisionism of many of the Italian Westerns reinvigorated the genre. They also came close to burying it, them and the cultural change which gripped the Western world in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. Who could buy the old black hat white hat conflicts of the Classical Western in a world of napalm and riot police killing students in campus protests? The Western survived by becoming even more revisionist and cynical. There was also the ubiquity of the genre in Western (more specifically American) culture throughout the 50s and 60s. Not just in cinema but on television, in Dime novels, in comic books - this was a played out genre, it seemed. By the end of the 1970s, the genre had become marginalised. One - or perhaps two - Hollywood Westerns were made a year, and they generally had little commercial impact unless they were made by and starring Clint Eastwood. This state of affairs has continued, more or less, to the present day, with the occasional nostalgic Western enjoying some success (Silverado or Tombstone, for instance), and the odd success for a romp in Western clothing (Maverick) or a stately, serious, Oscar-bait Western (Dances With Wolves). But Westerns, by and large, are no longer a major commercial genre.

But this is a genre which will not die. It is too rich, too flexible, too classically pleasurable. Any kind of story you want to tell, you can tell it as a Western. And Westerns are made for cinema - those landscapes, the spectacle, the simple drama of the conflicts and themes. The 00s were, against the odds, a great decade for Westerns. I say this without even considering the many sub-genres that thrived during the decade: the Modern Western (Brokeback Mountain, No Country For Old Men, even There Will Be Blood), the Asian Western (good, bad & Weird, django sugiaki) and the Tarantino Western-appropriation (Kill Bill I & II, Inglourious Basterds). No, the Western itself, about the American frontier and law and order, filled with unmistakable iconography - it too enjoyed a marvellous decade.
And so, the first of a series, hopefully:

The Missing
Ron Howard's best film (by far) is sort of a sidelong remake of The Searchers. Sometimes it feels like all movies are remakes of The Searchers. The premise of John Ford's adaptation of Alan LeMay's novel has acquired enough mythic weight - through repetition, perhaps, or just through the power of its purity and simplicity to have transformed into something of a generic staple - a base-myth, not unlike the gunfighter-cleans-up-town plot familiar from Shane and a hundred other films. The Movie Brat generation of the New American cinema of the 1970s certainly churned out multiple takes on the material, including Star Wars, Hardcore, and Taxi Driver. All of these films focus on a man in search of a young woman who he needs to rescue and/or redeem. Scorsese makes the reference most obvious by naming Harvey Keitel's villainous pimp "Scar" and giving him the long hair of an Indian Brave, but Lucas, too, steals some images and emotions outright from Ford. The most obvious is the scene where Luke Skywalker returns to his Tattooine farm to discover it raided and destroyed by Imperial Forces. Lucas returned to The Searchers with the Tattooine sequences of Attack of the Clones, where even the framing is taken directly from Ford.

Howard's film is a more literal remake, its plot following the fortunes of a Frontier widow who returns to her farm one day to find it raided by a band of Indians, who have abducted her teenage daughter and tortured and murdered her farmhand lover. She sets off in pursuit, joined by her recently arrived prodigal Father, who appears to have gone native as an Indian himself.
Thomas Eidson's source novel is a taut b-western written with a more modern sensibility and voice, which means it ascribes motivations, gestures towards themes and its prose aims at some poetic lyricism. But the characterisation and iconography are firmly rooted in the classic Western of the 40s and 50s.

Howard's adaptation of the novel is dark - so dark its hard to believe that Howard directed it - startlingly violent and features a strong, classy cast headed by Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. Jones in particular is fabulous, and he was born to act in Westerns, seeming as at home in that world as any actor since Walter Brennan. He has something weathered and elemental about him, and that Texan presence seems to suit these landscapes. As does the air of melancholy he lends to his character, a man bowed by regret and struggling to make amends. The plot chiefly concerns the long pursuit of father and daughter of the missing girl and climaxes in the battle to reclaim and keep her. This allows Howard to give us a short tour of the West, and so we get to see Val Kilmer in a brief, somewhat distracting cameo as a Cavalry Officer, among other notable sights.

Like Eidson's book, The Missing is essentially a classical pulp piece, here a b-movie with the production values and gloss of a big modern studio picture, bearing the obvious influence of the revisionist Westerns of the last two decades. This means that while it sometimes feels a little slight, its a sensually pleasurable watch, due in part to Salvatore Totino's beautiful phtography. Some of its other virtues are a vivid portrayl of the frontier world it portrays, tough action sequences and an emotionally effecting character relationship at its centre. Howard, ever the competent craftsman, makes it as gripping as a modern thriller, and its pacing is never as deliberate as was once mandatory in the Western genre. What it brings to the genre are the strong female lead - Blanchett plays her heroine as a tough, calloused woman who hides her femininity from the tough world she exists in. It was made some years after the brief wave of Female Westerns which included the likes of Bad Girls, The Quick & the Dead and The Ballad of Little Jo, and it benefits from the distance. Here the feminist reading of the genre has been internalised and is significantly less didactic than in some of those films.

Another element which has developed during the revisionist era is the treatment of Indian Mysticism. While its often celebrated for its more New Age, Humanist qualities - this tendency unsurprisingly originating in the psychedelic era of the late 60s - here it is unequivocally a black magic. The villain is an Indian Witch Doctor with a Jonah Hex-style facial disfigurement and a way with powder, potion and rattlesnake, played by Eric Schweig (Uncas from Mann's The Last of the Mohicans). He is a great Western bad guy - terrifying, mysterious, unpredictable. He is also perhaps the most arresting and unusual part of Howard's film, which is a good if never spectacular modern Western. Its failure - both commercial and critical - was disappointing if unsurprising. It is a rare Western that makes a splash at the Box Office in today's cinematic climate, and The Missing is not such a film.

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Blogger Monsieur Le Capuchin said...

Good piece and I look forward to more of them - how do you think you'll go forward, one for each year or your favourites?

5:59 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Randomly picking a Western from the last decade I fancy writing about, I think. I don't have the discipline to stick to any chronology..

10:46 pm  
Anonymous Tiago Lopes said...

Can't wait for the 3:10 To Yuma piece. It's one of the great films made in the past decade. Being a remake is not an obstacle, right?

1:11 pm  

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