Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Neo-Western

No Country for Old Men
3:10 to Yuma

The time has come to reinvent the western. With the recent release of 3:10 to Yuma, No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, I find myself wondering what has made this genre seem relevant again. 3:10 to Yuma stands alone as a relatively faithful remake of a western classic, complete with an edge-of-your-seat-shoot-out at the end. Although the film is entertaining, it does little to reinterpret the genre and I found myself distracted by the frequent close-ups, craving panoramic shots of mountains and dessert. The bad guy, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), is relatively good natured, and is one of those bad guys you are supposed to kind of want to be.

No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, on the other hand, foreground villains as seemingly soulless as the devil himself. Through these villains, the films bring ominous predictions of doom and destruction to replace the promises of gold, honor and land that drove the cowboys of yesteryear across the plains. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), when regarded together, communicate the destruction of the solitary male hero, and the characteristics necessary for his success, and the type of adventure he craves. The last lines of the films echo each other as if they were called from opposite sides of the same rock canyon.

“I am finished.”

“And then I woke up.”

These are falsely assuring statements that unsettle from the inside out. Both Anderson and the Coen Brothers cut to black immediately following these plainly stated facts, abruptly expelling the viewer from the world that they are still struggling to understand. For both of these statements force a reevaluation of all that came before in the context with what has just transpired. Has the Sheriff woken up from his dream, his career, or his life? Has Plainview finished the murder, his career, or his life? Beyond character and plot, these lines are self-referential, and call attention to the finite nature of film. Plainview essentially delivers the message that the end-titles would: “fin.” The Sheriff calls attention to the countless films and stories that end with someone waking up in the tradition of The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland.

Western films are meant to evoke a sense of America—land, opportunity, dreams—even the Spaghetti and Sauerkraut Westerns import their tropes, aesthetics and landscapes from the American West. Films, for the most part, are cultural studies of the time they were made more so than the time in which they are set. No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood , as neo-westerns, are cinematic studies of the times. But rather that writing what I think the "message" of the films are, I will leave that for my own personal contemplation. I certainly do not think that politics should be private, but despite myself, I don’t want to wake up from the dream.


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