A guide to cinema – the western
|January 27, 2012||Posted by Sep Gohardani under guide to cinema|
The large majority of westerns are unoriginal, simply recycling the formulae of their equally dismal predecessors, but within the sea of corny cowboy remakes there is the odd gem. In the first part of my new series, A Guide to Cinema, I will look at my five favourite westerns and detail exactly why you should watch each one. So without further ado…
5. True Grit (2011)
(Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, Starring: Jeff Bridges; Matt Damon; Hailee Steinfeld, Certificate 15)
This film makes the Coen Brothers look like they’ve been major players in the western genre for a long time, but in actual fact this is only their first western. Nevertheless it’s just as fantastically made as any of their previous films, complete with brilliant performances from Kevin Bridges (who has worked with the brothers previously on the excellent The Big Lebowski), Matt Damon and, most notably, Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie Ross steals the show and makes it clear why she was picked out of the 15,000 applicants for the role. I expect her to continue to flourish, and she certainly helped in making this one of the best westerns ever, also showing that remakes can match up to and even outshine originals, with the John Wayne version being easily overshadowed by the glowing performances and skilled direction on show here. Making a classic look average is testament to how fantastic this is. The Coen Brothers stamp their authority once more.
(For the full TSR review of True Grit, click here.)
4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
(Dir. Sergio Leone, Starring: Clint Eastwood; Lee Van Cleef; Eli Wallach; Mario Brega, Certificate 18)
Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy is probably the most well known western series ever to have graced the big screen. Leone can be seen as one of the pioneers of the ‘spaghetti’ western and his unique directorial style has been imitated relentlessly by later filmmakers, illustrating just how much of an influence on westerns, and indeed cinema as a whole, he was. This, the last of the trilogy, is arguably his best, becoming the epitome of the western genre itself. Clint Eastwood gives a typically gruff performance, something which suits Leone’s style perfectly. The Italian aimed to dispel some of the myths about the wild west that previous films in the genre had embodied, almost ridiculing the ideas of a simple good and evil and showing the west not to be a glamorous place but rather a gritty and vengeful land affected by the civil war and full of people who just had nowhere to go. The story is compelling, and almost accounts for how people dealt with the situation in different manners, the title itself being a sort of ironic oversimplification of the characters. Lee Van Cleef’s character is fantastically menacing, and it illustrates the differences even bounty hunters have, and to what measures they’d go so as to reach their goals. Complete with a score which is now almost more famous than the film itself and one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema, Leone’s masterpiece is a must-see for western fans and indeed fans of cinema altogether. (The above trailer, incidentally, is the DVD version because the actual trailer treats you as if you’re a 3-year old child who is as yet unsure what things are. The film is so much better than that. Seriously.)
3. Unforgiven (1992)
(Dir. Clint Eastwood, Starring: Clint Eastwood; Morgan Freeman; Gene Hackman; Richard Harris, Certificate 15)
Director and actor Clint Eastwood produces one of his very own masterpieces here, in homage to his mentor Leone who died three years prior to its release. In my opinion this actually eclipses his inspirer’s work. After the release of Leone’s film, the western largely sunk back in to its clichéd, John Wayne-themed existence where the good was always against the evil. Here, Eastwood once again sets out to portray a more real side to the west, telling the story of retired and repentant outlaw William Munny (Eastwood) who returns to the business one last time after becoming outraged at the conduct of two men who hideously slash the face of a prostitute without much punishment from peace-loving sheriff Bill Daggett (Hackman). Together with fellow retired outlaw Ned Logan (Freeman) they attempt to take on the men when it becomes apparent that Bill is also going to become a problem. The film is violent, but not happily so – Eastwood is not glamorising the shootouts like many western filmmakers have in the past, but instead critiquing their empty premises and ultimately offering a self-criticism of many of his own works, something which drives me to respect the man even more. Morgan Freeman is also fantastic as Munny’s partner, giving one of the best performances of his career. Dark and uncompromising, this film is one of Eastwood’s gems and deserved all four of the Academy Awards it won at the time. Compelling.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
(Dir. Andrew Dominik, Starring: Brad Pitt; Casey Affleck; Sam Rockwell; Paul Schneider; Jeremy Renner, Certificate 15)
When this film was released in late 2007 it was by all accounts a box office flop, only regaining half of its $30mn budget, but in my opinion it is a classic. Complete with fantastic acting performances from Casey Affleck (Ocean’s Eleven) and Brad Pitt (Fight Club), beautiful cinematography by the great Roger Deakins (even better than his aforementioned True Grit efforts) and a haunting score by gothic rock maestro Nick Cave, the film does absolutely everything right cinematically and is the first account of the tale of Jesse James that can be called historically accurate. Compelling from start to finish, the tale of Bob Ford’s corruption after his image of James is crushed is on the point of heartbreaking, and the film loses nothing from the fact that its title gives away the most pivotal event. It is the lead-up to this event that is fascinating, and many have their own theories on James’ involvement in his own assassination.
As far as Deakins is concerned, this film can be considered one of his very best. Some of the shots here are the best I have ever come across, and he captures the beauty of the scene brilliantly: from the swaying corn to the snowy fields, every shot is epic, and every shot complements the scene almost more than perfectly. The legend certainly hasn’t lost his ability, and I’m certainly hoping for more of him in the future. The film marked Andrew Dominik’s second film in the business, and the New Zealander certainly has talent. Bending the rules of a western, he sets it at his own pace and tells every story with such immersive brilliance that you find yourself noticing even the subtle facial expressions of both lead men, who incidentally give what could be deemed as the best performances of their careers in their respective roles. Affleck in particular is amazing, and he portrays the changing emotions of his character and makes clear his thought processes with skill and class.
Dark, compelling and ultimately heart-wrenching, this tale is beautifully told and really is undervalued by the public. I implore you to get yourselves a copy so we can remind ourselves in the future that there was once good cinema after the inevitable Transformers 1000: Return of Megan Fox and The Last Airbender 2: Seriously Bent.
1. The Proposition (2006)
(Dir. John Hillcoat, Starring: Ray Winstone; Guy Pearce; Danny Huston; Emily Watson; John Hurt, Certificate 18)
Set in the 1880s, this Australian western follows the tale of Charlie Burns (Pearce) as he sets out on a mission to kill his brother and notorious Australian outlaw Arthur Burns (Huston) so as to save his younger brother Mike (Wilson) from the noose for a role in the murder of the Hopkins family. This task is set upon him by new police chief in the area Captain Morris Stanley (Winstone), brought over from England to restore order to an increasingly unruly colony. Unrelentingly dark and morose, it reduces the glamour of the traditional western to dust and is a bastion of intelligent storytelling and wonderful acting. It also boasts a truly poignant score, courtesy of the Bad Seeds duo Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Cave’s screenplay is also fantastic and further epitomises his standing as something of a genius in the entire arts field with some of the most intelligent and profound writing ever to have graced cinema.
Director John Hillcoat, nowadays of The Road fame, begins his penchant for dark cinema here with his best work so far. Hillcoat portrays the grime and the general filthiness of Australia at the time in a number of ways, primarily through the use of a fly motif, their constant buzzing signifying the extent of the problems at the time and also the ever-lingering fear of death that so many people felt during the period. The cinematography captured by Benoît Delhomme also helps to illustrate this as he brings out a series of powerful, often disturbing images and juxtaposes them with the beautiful Australian landscape. Delhomme’s contribution is another area of the film that is practically flawless, and deserves recognition of its own.
Ray Winstone and Guy Pearce are the standout actors for me, and the parallels made between their conflicting ambitions and their hopes for the future are scintillating. Both men are famous for other roles, but in my opinion this under-appreciated jewel should rank amongst their most memorable performances and is simply the most engaging and beautifully crafted western I have ever come across.
Other westerns worth a mention:
Fistful of Dollars (1964) – The original Sergio Leone epic
Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) – Another of Sergio Leone’s westerns, completed after the ‘Dollars’ trilogy
True Grit (1969) - The original is well directed by Henry Hathaway but does not reach the same level of performance in terms of acting or in terms of its ability to engage as the remake. Nevertheless, a stalwart of the genre.
So, my first top five is unveiled. Do you agree? Feel free to post in the comments.