A film originally recommended to me during my last year at art-school. I caught Lone Star (1996) a few years ago and found it to be a richly rewarding film with a lot of depth. I thought this time around I could really do the film some justice after a few more years exploration of the Western. Released during the mid 1990’s when the genre had seen something of a resurgence, beginning with Pale Rider (1985) going through to, well Lone Star and Buffalo Soldiers (1997) it would not pick up much traction until a few years ago with True Grit (2010) and Django Unchained (2012) that began to rework and understand the genre for a new audience in a time of uncertainty and political tensions. Also just in time for me to catch a few at the cinema too.
So what makes Lone Star stand the test of time to some of the more forgotten films that played fast and loose with the tropes and language of the genre, they maybe fun and action packed. It also stands alone from the pack, at a time when the life in the genre had run out of steam once more it takes the history of the genre and the state of Texas becoming more introspective. You could say it’s another modern version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – more on that later. Beginning with the discovery of a pair of off-duty army officers who discover a skeleton, only a few meter’s away there’s a sheriff’s badge to go with it. Could this be relic from the old West now celebrate on film, or is the body of a more recent officer of the law?
We then travel back in time to the 1960’s finding it’s like the good old days with a crooked sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who holds the Rio county in his pocket. He’s foul-mouthed, racist and greedy, he knows the power that his position gives him and abuses it to his own advantage. The other officers just let him do get away with almost anything. Except Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who has a conscience that doesn’t agree with the status quo. Sounds familiar when you look back at the genres golden age, a crooked sheriff and a straight-laced deputy, if only they could stand up to the corruption.
Except this doesn’t feel like the old West, its more like the new West that rose from the ashes of the civil war, corruption, the cattle boom and the demise of slavery. We have a more serious Western, or you could say straight drama that’s set in the same location as the Alamo. With a mystery at the centre of the film being led by Buddy Deed’s son Charlie (Chris Cooper) who wants to prove his suspicions right and put this case to bed before politics takes over for the upcoming election for Sheriff.
Whilst the case is going on, we take a closer look at the town of Rio County, the people who inhabit it. From the school that sees the parents fighting the teachers to educate their own ideas of the country’s history. The old saying that histories written by the winners really does shine through in these scenes. Mexican parents want a more honest account of the events leading up to the Alamo and beyond before they lost land to Texas. Whilst American’s want to hold onto the myth, a fabric and important part of their own past, informed by celebration, dime novels and of course the films that blurred that history into something far bigger and yet more vague in the process.
We focus on one of those teachers, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) who previously had a relationship with Charlie. It’s like he returned from her past to haunt her now when she picks up her son who had been arrested. We also see tensions between her and her mother Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) who has her own fight with her staff who are not helping the immigrant crisis. She identifies herself as a Mexican American, wanting to speak English North of the border, trying to assert that in others is a fight. You can already see it’s not just a murder mystery, we have the border problem – which has still not gone away. The discussion around what kids should be taught in schools, the identity of the county and the State of Texas.
The local Army base is also depicted, and it’s not just about following orders and the chain of command. We have a Black Colonel Del (Joe Morton) whose latest posting has brought him back home to his estranged father – Otis (Ron Canada) whose part of the counties history and as we see the demise of Charlie Wade. The father son-relationship has it’s moments that are about to repeat themselves in Don’s own son who aspires to go to join the army. Whilst a current soldier who sees the army as a form of security in a society that wont accept the colour of her skin.
You can see a lot is going on in this film, longer than the average Western, it gives time to develop all these facets of a town that is in a state of constant change. Attempting to grapple where they all are. For Charlie it’s too things, the truth behind the death of his predecessor that has taken on mythic stature, which ultimately he won’t try and break, the truth for him and to shut the case is enough. There’s little he can really do once the truth is out. Like that finally revealed by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as much as he tries to set the record straight he can’t fight the myth, defeated by a journalist who refuses to publish it, knowing the power of the truth in the face of myth. Charlie understands that power far more than the old Senator who attends his old friends funeral. It’s bigger than him or anyone can really imagine.
With so much going on and little action it’s an incredible change in tone, placing this Western in the Revisionist category, one that maintains the language but has moved on in time. You can no longer settle your disagreements like men with guns outside, times have indeed changed. It’s a film that takes it’s time to spend time with characters and really get into the meat of what’s going on in that part of the world. It’s a nice change too to see where the genre has come from the rebirth in the mid-eighties that celebrated the genre to a film that really interrogates it and ask, where has it all gone.
This is one remake I have been avoiding for sometime, I’m not sure anyone who attempts to remake a John Ford western is going to succeed. There was news a few months ago that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is being remade and set in the 198o’s, that’s an interesting twist. There have been many films compared to The Searchers, (1956) however they are not remakes as we find with Stagecoach (1966) which was released 27 years after the original that changed the face of cinema. Thought to not only influence Citizen Kane (1941), it revitalised the genre and lastly launched the career of John Wayne who’d been stuck in a rut of b-movies for the best part of the 1930’s, he even made a few after its release – contractually.
You can’t apply the same effect to the genre or the medium of film to the remake which admittedly does expand on the film. Much like remakes of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), I’m waiting to see how The Magnificent Seven compares now. I must confess it has been a few years since I’ve seen the original 1939 Stagecoach which was as much about making the genre more appealing to an adult audience. Bringing together social misfits or outsiders into a confined space, a vehicle on a dangerous route in the open untamed West. It was ultimately the perfect showcase for John Wayne, still baby-faced he personified a young independent America standing up for itself, playing Ringo Kid a role that was given to him by Ford – “Pappy” who had been waiting to give him the right part at the right time. He was redeemed from years of working the circuit of formulaic westerns that had no room for either story or character development. They were the training ground that saw him grow and form the character he would then play until 1976, a 50 year career.
I can’t feel the same effect in the remake with Alex Cord who fills the role in terms of stature at least, there are times where he’s definitely trying to break free of the Dukes even taller shadow. In terms of the walk and tone of his delivery. His entrance into the film is not the event that we found in 1939, the cockiness of the gun play, as he stands in the road is replaced by sitting at the side of the road for the stagecoach to reach him, not that he’s waiting for them, they are both opportunist in that respect.
What makes this interpretation stand apart is the longer running time, at nearly 2 hours allowing for more development with all of the characters, making for a richer film in that respect. I say allowing I feel its a missed chance with some characters, they do have more screen time, however its given more to Dallas (Ann-Margret) who has more of a back story. Rumoured to be the cause of few brawls in the town, not just a typical prostitute that Claire Trevor played and pushed out by the Law and Order League, its more about cleaning up the town to keep the general crime rate. She feels cursed by the legacy of death. Another characters whose drawn well is the doctor, this time played by Bing Crosby taking over Thomas Mitchell‘s role who you can’t forget, so full of life. Both actors of the same generation we meet an older doctor in Crosby, unshaven atypical drunk in appearance, however he plays a drunk doesn’t try to give up the drink. Mitchells knows he has a demon, he delivers a baby sober and celebrates that. Crosby’s is looking for the next drink all the time.
Of course you can’t have a straight copy, or it wouldn’t be a film in its own right. Making the conscious decision to not film in Monument Valley which is John Ford country, to shoot there would be a bold move. Instead sticking to more traditional landscape, which makes for a more traditional western. What we do have which is practically a like for like swap is the stagecoach driver Buck, originally Andy Devine took the reins, a loud and large figure who was regular for Ford, with Slim Pickens we have another loud character actor who made an impression on his films.
What makes this film stand apart is the larger screen time of the Apache’s lead by Geronimo are more than just rumour, we see them at the beginning of the film attacking the U.S. cavalry. There is no rolling prologue to set-up the film. Geronimo is not really mentioned and they are still the faceless, nameless enemy of the genre. I’m not critiquing that here though, more a comment in terms of the films comparison. The gunfight’s are well choreographed make for a more fearsome other who attacks the white for no reason more than they are Apache. Which oddly makes up for the lack of Monument Valley and Ford. I do however wish they hadn’t re-staged Ringo jumping through the horses. It wasn’t as grand a set-piece, used more as a means to get the stagecoach through.
The problem is that for me Stagecoach is an iconic film, to remake it’s going to be a sensitive thing to do. Getting it right, this is a star-filled piece, well semi star-filled anyway. It’s longer, darker in some respect but overall a looser film that is conscious of the shadow that is hanging over this modern piece of Wild West folklore that he it hopes to meet at some point. I am actually now considering seeking out the Johnny Cash version, made 20 years later, just to see how the story translates and transforms over time. It does still confine outcasts into the one small and dangerous vehicle, but the chemistry has not been replicated successfully.
This is one of those films that only come to town thanks to my local independent cinema which I have sadly and admittedly have under-used, Thankfully The Phoenix in Leicester gave me that opportunity to catch Slow West (2015). I am indeed being treated to a few westerns this year, whatever form they care to come in. Much like the previous The Salvation (2014) is European in tone, well more so the latter really. In terms of tone, Slow West has more in common with offbeat westerns made in Hollywood, the only one I can think of in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which I am still very unsure about. Maybe because it is played more for laughs before you get those twist that leave you in the cold.
Anyway coming to date here we have a splendid little film where not a lot really happens from the moment that young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is bribed into being escorted by man of the west Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender who also narrates) across the open country. We soon learn the motivation behind this gesture. As Jay is in search of his sweetheart who moved out to America, whilst not aware of her background as an outlaw who has escaped with her father in hopes of an easier life.
With the premise in place we set out, that’s not after the first draw of the guns which end quite surprisingly really. The language of the Western has been simplified and amplifying that fact to great effect. It’s having fun as this love-struck young man makes his way across dangerous open country. Getting himself in situations and growing up, making his first kill (not saying we should all do that). It’s full of surprises, taking heavily from the Coen Brothers style of twisting the plot at times to keep you on your toes. There was very little in the way of twists in their western True Grit (2010) finding more in common with Millers Crossing (1990). It is more authentic whilst also taking licence to be unique, as we meet Silas’s old gang lead by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) who plays a very much larger than life gunfighter who plays is cool, trying to get Silas to once more ride with him as they are both after the same bounty.
I’m also reminded of Clint Eastwood‘s nameless bounty hunter from the dollars trilogy, single-minded, out for himself and taking advantage of the situation at hand. I don’t think that Fassbender is doing this intentionally as he does grow to love the young man, developing a mutual respect for each other. You could say the events make no sense as one random thing moves the film forward or gives it a jolt in the arm. Things literally do come out of nowhere, making it’s a refreshing film to watch, not just as western but something that really does make you sit up and think “what just happened?”
It also comments of the aborignals if only briefly in prophetic form via Werner (Andrew Robertt) a travelling author who is documenting the Native American’s demise. Slow West is commenting on the genre and Anericas past without being giving us a lecture about it. Even when we see them they are treated with respect, yet they are still faceless and nameless bar one.
Technically it’s unique, shot in an old screen ratio of 1.66:1 that really makes this something special to watch, not your stand 16:9 ratio, everything is carefully composed in this more confined space, pieces do fall out, yet it’s more intimate to watch in this format. Cinematographically there are some great compositions, especially at the end during the gunfight, making use of the landscape to really enhance the gunfight. All this before ending on a bombshell of sorts, here we don’t have that happy ending that we would have from Hollywood, as they embrace. Instead it more realistic, not in the face of our expectations for them to ride off into the sunset. Making this refreshing to watch and enjoy, a shot in the arm once more for a genre as one review (paraphrasing) says it not quite up there in boot hill just yet which is reassuring to know as new ways are found to keep it alive.
When I first heard about The Homesman (2014) I was actually excited about it, then the more I heard I became more cautious towards this western (or not if you ask Tommy Lee Jones) as I read the reviews hoping that it could be better. Rare as it is to find a solid Western that’s not a quasi something-or-other instead. We are getting a few this year but it’s not like the 1950’s when you couldn’t move for them. With this latest outing into 19th century America we have a feminist focus to the film, which is quite rare, which I can see where the Unforgiven (1992) comparisons made and finished. The DVD tries to sell it to me this is the best film since Eastwood’s last Western masterpiece and he made a few of them. This is not a masterpiece. I can find a number of flaws with this film which does have good intentions.
As Western lore would have it the male takes the lead out on the frontier, it’s just how the dime-novels and cinema have written it. There have been strong women out there, one being Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey from The Searchers (1956), however they are hard to come by and usually there as a thorn in the side of the men. We also have Meek’s Cutoff (2010) where the women have to take charge as they survive out on the trail. Progress is being made but very slowly after 120 years of male dominance we now have Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) living the life alone on the frontier. Youth is not on her side, society is looking down upon her. A spinster is the life she has assumed as we find out early on as she tries to get married. You feel sorry for her, after all the effort she goes to, in the hopes of getting her a man. She just doesn’t know how to, which lets her down. Played with great strength by Swank who bring a lot to the role. Assuming the male duties in life, she has to be a strong Christian character.
Which leads into the tone of the film which is quite strong for the most part, similar to that of True Grit (2010) using a richer language of the time. You are more immersed in the world for it. It’s a shame the set-design lets it down, all the buildings a well crafted and made, however they look just that well made, there’s no sense of time or ageing to them. As if they opening up a flat-pack box, assembled them before the finishing touches (or lack of) which for me is distracting against the landscape that really shimmers. You really are out there in the mid-west.
I mentioned earlier about the feminist leanings of the film which are refreshing, taking on both mental illness and the social position that a woman must or chooses to take in society. It doesn’t even have to be just about America, more the western world. The idea of knowing your place in the worlds being blurred and questioned. Should a woman be a stay at home mum, or out there in the workplace being a success among the men. Should they be judged for that, all encompassed in Bee Cuddy living alone on her homestead and farm, She is more than a match for most women and is respected by men alike, not feared. Maybe part of that is down to the source material by Glendon Swarthout who allegories these ideas. Whilst mental illness is not treated as burden but as an illness that needs proper treatment, radical thinking for the 19th century. Seen in three women who are plagued with various disorders. Although these women Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are secondary characters they do have ample screen time. We get to understand their suffering whilst the main relationship is going on.
I’ve not even mentioned Tommy Lee Jones yet the director, screenwriter, produces and stars as George Briggs a man who we find being run out of his home and left for dead, seems pretty standard out in the Wild West. Saved by Bee Cuddy who takes pity on him, asking in return he helps on her journey across the Missouri River with 3 women who have “lost their minds” in hopes that they can be properly looked after. So this is a wagon trip, a lone trip with a man and 4 women. This is his way of saying thank you for being saved (or pushed into it). Briggs is a curmudgeonly guy who reluctantly takes up the job, faced with a tattered reputation. He is the brain of the outfit in terms of survival, he knows the wilderness better than Bee Cuddy who is more focused on the caring, her Christian duty to the suffering women.
It’s a real learning curve for Bee Cuddy who becomes more worldly, there’s a scene where we hear screaming from the wagon, she stops to go around to the back to shout at one of the women to stop screaming. One of the symptoms of certain conditions that she or no-one else fully understands. Her limits are being pushed, her faiths questioned on this journey. And then we hit a bump in the road, when we go back to her loneliness, asking for Briggs to marry her, which you don’t really see coming (well kind of). We see she wants a man in her life, even going further yo be with him. It’s handled sensitively until out of nowhere she’s written out. Leaving me with frustration, asking why did you do that. Why can’t we see her reach the end of the journey that she took up, it as her choice. Now its left up to Briggs (reluctantly again) to complete the journey. Not before a pointless stop at a hotel where we find owner Aloysius Duffy (James Spader) unwelcoming. It’s a real tangent that serves little purpose, unless its to say that not all of society is welcoming/understanding to mental illness. I would accept this if there were more random scenes, more offbeat like The Missouri Breaks (1976). It’s not though, and after the death of Bee Cuddy which I’m still trying to understand.
We do return on course (just about) to see the ladies into the care of Altha Carter (Meryl Streep) who is turning up in everything at the moment. Theres time for reflection now as Briggs comes to terms with what has just happened. It feels a bit wishy-washy for me, as he tries to mythologise Bee Cuddy to a girl who cares less. He does become more caring after the journey, so he has grown, yet remains the same as we leave him on a river barge. Left wondering why, why, why did that final act happen as it did. Is this a western, yes and no, it has the language, but not the real form to be a solid western? It does take place in that era, there is moment but not enough as we Jones is using the genre more as a period in history to explore two ideas both from the female perspective, which is rare today.