How Do You Make a Western in the 21st Century?

·11 min read
WESTERNS - Credit: Universal Pictures; Twentieth Century Studios; Danno Nell/Paramount +
WESTERNS - Credit: Universal Pictures; Twentieth Century Studios; Danno Nell/Paramount +

There’s a lot of ways to describe Jordan Peele’s Nope: an update on “Watch the Skies!” sci-fi from the 1950s; a tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1970s blockbuster building blocks (what if those Close Encounter of the Third Kind UFOs were just hungry, extraterrestrial great white sharks?); a 21st century meta-text about what we watch and why we keep watching it. All 100-percent accurate.

But read the reviews and explainers and numerous think pieces on Peele’s latest blend of horror and commentary, and there’s one word that keeps popping up, again and again. It’s mentioned when they talk about Jupiter’s Claim, the modest frontier-themed amusement park run by Steven Yuen’s former child actor, who once played a pint-sized sheriff in a movie and still takes his fancy sartorial cues from that role. It’s namechecked in the film posters you see at Haywood Ranch, notably Buck and the Preacher and Duel at Diablo. You can see traces of it in the movie’s scenes of folks handling horses or galloping them across the Agua Dulce valley. And should there be any doubt that Peele is toying with a certain age-old iconography in his purposefully ambiguous take on Hollywood and repackaging catastrophe as entertainment, there’s Daniel Kaluuya at the very end, posed on his steed like Tom Mix reincarnated while a Morricone-esque score plays behind him. The director of Get Out has once again made a movie that contains multitudes. He’s also made, in his own unique way, a Western.

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Except it’s not exactly a Western, or at least not fully in line how we’ve traditionally thought of them. You know: six-shooters and saloons, white hats and black hats, gunfighters and outlaws riding the range some time between America’s Civil War and the nation’s head-on collision with the dawning 20th century. (Although the Edward Muybridge photo experiment, which the film uses as a conversation starter, dates back to the late 1870s — so it’s period-appropriate.) There are sequences in Peele’s movie designed to evoke the feeling of a Western, and a few that could have been lifted straight out of one. It’s just one of many ingredients in this genre melt, however, and while no one would dispute it’s a horror movie or a science fiction parable, dropping the W-word will earn you a few skeptical looks. Yes, it kinda is…and nope, it sorta isn’t.

You could almost say the same thing about Yellowstone, the insanely popular series that’s due to start its fifth season on Fancy CBS, a.k.a. Paramount Plus, this November. Created by writer-director Taylor Sheridan — a gentleman with genuine cowboy bona fides and whose best work riffs heavily on the pop-mythology of the wild, wild West — it’s a sprawling saga about the Duttons, a cattle-ranching clan in Montana led by Kevin Costner. His family has both business rivalries and blood relations with the local indigenous population, and his crew has taken on everything from modern-day rustlers to rogue grizzly bears. Inter–ranch-hand rivalries, contemporary carpetbaggers, civilization encroaching on the last bastion of the frontier — take away the helicopters and the cell phones, and it could be Bonanza. “We’re just trying to live our lives the way we have for the last 100 years,” one of the younger Duttons says, talking to an evil city-slicker, “and you keep coming here, trying to take that away from us.” More like 150 years, but we see what you mean.

When folks are asked to categorize it, however, they dub it a “neo-Western” — or they tend to de-emphasize what it’s borrowing or bending in terms of that genre’s conventions. “Neo-Westerns are really unique in that they are beautifully sophisticated, cinematic scripted programming,” MTV executive Chris McCarthy noted in Variety‘s profile of Sheridan. “But if you’re not into Westerns, that’s Ok, because these are just great stories about family dynamics.” Message received: Hey, it’s not the musty ol’ oater you think it is, just because people rope steers and wear Stetsons! It’s Ok. It’s really just a red-state Dynasty!

This is how you make a Western in the third decade of the 21st century: You don’t make it a “Western.” Instead, you cross-breed it with a few other genres or you embed elements of the horse opera deep into the mix or you slap a cool name on it that telegraphs that this ain’t your grandfather’s Western, kids. Personally, I kind of dig “neo-Western,” especially when applied to Sheridan’s work; it’s a good way of nailing the past-present friction that makes his script for Hell and High Water (2016) and his directorial debut, the divisive Wind River (2017), work so well.

And yes, there are still occasional “traditional” Westerns that have galloped their way into the public consciousness over the last 10 years. Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who’s a genre unto himself, has made two. There was a brief spate of indie Westerns making the festival rounds around the time The Revenant was slouching its way towards the Oscars. Last year’s The Harder They Fall gave a whole new generation of Black actors the opportunity to play in a cinematic space they rarely get to. (Say what you will about Jeymes Samuel’s stylish tribute to gunfighter epics: You can not not underestimate the pleasure of watching Regina King going full Clint Eastwood with those Colt .45s.) Thanks to the runaway success of Yellowstone, Sheridan was able to give the world 1883, a prequel set in the title’s year and stars two Western Hall-of-Famers: Sam Elliott and Sam Elliott’s Mustache. Even Costner wants to see if he can now strike Dances With Wolves-style lightning twice.

But the much more common route these days is to wrap up your Western-ish story in the shawl of contemporary storytelling or pile a lot of other elements on top of it, whether it’s the trappings of other film arcgetypes or a level of heavy-VFX sound and fury. Take God’s Country, an upcoming film about a college professor (Thandie Newton) living in rural Montana. When two hunters keep trespassing onto her land — and feel that they’re entitled to do whatever they want, private property and her requests to leave be damned — you can tell that a stand-off is on its way. The fact that she’s Black and these two men are white adds a whole level to Julian Higgins’ pulpy nailbiter, but you can see how what’s essentially a Western, down to its snowy-valley backgrounds and ranch homes, is being molded and sold as a revenge thriller. Not unlike No Country for Old Men, another movie that is, at its core, a Western yet fancies itself a Heartland Noir, there’s a cake-and-eat-it-too thing going on here. And should we really be getting that long-awaited Avatar sequel this December, as James Cameron has promised, it’s likely that it will get the same Native-centric Western comparisons that the original did. Strip away the 3-D, the blue skin and the exotic flora, and once again, it’s Dances With Wolves in Space.

Even prestige period dramas that look and sound like old-school Westerns tend to get away with technicalities. You might remember the kerfuffle last year when the aforementioned Mr. Elliott took The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s Oscar-nominated tale of romance and repression on the high plains, to task for not knowing how to “properly” make a Western. There was a lot to unpack in his comments, which he eventually walked back and humbly apologized for. But despite the fact he was being such a traditionalist in regards to the form, Elliott might have also mentioned that the movie takes place in 1925, long after the West had been “won.” It’s central figure is a cowpoke who can rope and ride with the best of them; he also went to Yale and views cowboy life as a form of rebellion rather than a means of survival. It’s chock full of Western iconography, as is Brokeback Mountain (2005), a movie that many compared Campion’s psychological drama to upon it release, and for somewhat superficial reasons that become apparent when you see her film. There will undoubtedly be a similar conversation when Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, about a serial killer among the Osage population in 1920s Oklahoma, becomes part of the Oscar conversation next year. So: are these films Westerns? And does it really matter whether the answer is yes or no?

You understand why some would answer No — a great movie is a great movie is a great movie, the whole idea of genre is a convenient construct, what’s wrong with fresh-blood transfusions, yadda yadda yadda. And for many of us who are still fascinated with what filmmakers and showrunners and storytellers can accomplish by using what the Western has given us, and aren’t ready to see the old-school version of that go away entirely, you can understand why the dual sensation of excitement and existential dread sometimes accompanies every new neo-Western and hybrid offshoot. Ever since Justus D. Barnes aimed a six-shooter at audiences in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, Westerns have been a part of of cinema’s diet. (That the same shot was allegedly the inspiration for the accident that shut down one of the few recent attempts to make a trad Western is both ironic and extraordinarily tragic.) It also seems to be the genre that is most in danger of extinction — a point which is, in fact, key to Nope‘s handwringing over Hollywood — and the one most likely to be viewed as outdated and conservative to a fault.

This is, to use the parlance of the Western’s times, a lot of horse apples. It’s mythologized our nation’s history in a way that’s been unhealthy for the body politics, true. And it’s through those familiar bits and pieces that so many of the great Westerns have been able to interrogate our past, make us rethink our present and possibly course-correct for our future. There’s so much that can be smuggled in under the “innocent” cover of cowboy hats and saddles. Glance back at the coded Freudian Westerns of the 1950s and the revisionist horse operas of the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention the politically charged, heavily Marxist spaghetti Westerns coming out of Italy around that time, and you can see how subversive this conservative genre can get.

That subversive streak, thankfully, can still be found even among the 21st century mash-ups that use the Western’s vocabulary and DNA to entertain, enlighten and simply excite viewers into a frenzy. Whether Prey became Hulu’s hugest hit to date because people were hungry for a new Predator movie, the word of mouth was strong, this has been a particularly barren August or the Amber Midthunder hive finally found their voice, is a matter of opinion. What is undeniable is that it a) uses key bits of what we recognize as Western movie archetypes and landscapes, b) it’s a sci-fi-slash-horror-slash-franchise-entry that happens to uses these things to their own ends and c) if you’re applying tried-and-true Western standards, it’s disqualified because it takes place in 1719.

Yet when you watch Prey, you see the way it employs its Comanche heroine and those genre archetypes; how it pits indigenous culture against what’s essentially high-tech colonialism (in addition to period-appropriate colonialism); furthers the idea of who gets to be an action hero; and takes the revisionist Western concept of viewing manifest destiny from a Native point of view while also expanding on that culture’s representation in some truly thrilling ways. Thanks to its B-movie ability to act as an old-fashioned romp while completely showing its roots and slipping in some popcorn for thought, you feel like you’re witnessing proof that filmmakers can still use the form to their advantage even when it’s just one piece among many. The genre doesn’t have to adhere to a strict checklist to show you what it still does best. You can transplant elements within the host. This is how you make 21st century Westerns. We’re not done with them yet.

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