Bone Tomahawk (US-UK, 2015)

Not your average ‘Indian’

S. Craig Zahler’s debut as a director (he also scripted) is less a Western than an outback horror movie, though the tropes of the former are present. A posse of four ill-matched men go after some particularly savage ‘Indians’ who have kidnapped one of the pursuers’ wife. So far so conventional and the unspoken male creed of ‘what a man’s gotta do…’ underpins the men’s bravery. The landscape, a mixture of scrub and glorious vistas, is typical of the genre too though the setting, in the last decade of the 19th century, is later than ‘classic’ Westerns.

The (for me) dread hand of Tarantino is present in some of the dialogue that seems to be trying to be clever but that’s never over-bearing and it’s delivered brilliantly by the cast. The actors are the main reason to see this film unless you wish to be grossed out. Kurt Russell’s rugged visage was designed to be a sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ garrulous old man is a delight.

The film risks going back to the reactionary ‘Indian as savage’ trope but Zahler’s careful to distinguish the savages with ‘authentic’ Native Americans. And savage they are ‘treating’ us to the ‘best’ dismemberment I’ve seen in film; if that’s your bag.

One bright spot, in terms of it being a Western, is Lili Simmons’s character, the abducted wife. Although marginalised for much of the film she does get a great speech where she talks about the problems of the frontier (which had disappeared by 1890) not being the terrain or ‘Indians’, but male stupidity. The ‘men’s gotta do…’ is certainly stupid in some contexts and the narrative stretches too far in allowing them to do it; even in the context of a genre film, it is not believable.

The film is overlong, some of the dialogue could have been trimmed, but is worth seeing for the cast but if you’re squeamish avoid the last half hour.

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Hombre (US 1966)

Soulful eyes

Hombre is a revisionist western where the ‘savage Indian’ is shown to actually have been the victims of rapacious white men. I was slightly worried at the start of the film where we see Paul Newman as an Apache (above) but we find he was merely adopted by the Native Americans and it’s not a case of ‘whitewash’ casting. The ‘good but indecisive’ Mexican stereotype, however, is embodied by Martin Balsam; we shouldn’t go too far in condemning racist conventions of the time (though we can condemn the practice now – see Emma Stone in Aloha, 2015, and others) particularly in a film that is trying to be progressive. It should be noted, however, that there are no speaking parts for Native Americans; as is often the case with liberalism, ‘white man speak for all’!

The narrative is driven by Richard Boone’s brilliant bad guy chasing down a disparate group on a stagecoach who defer to ‘hombre’s’ (Newman) expertise in survival. Blessed by James Wong Howe’s widescreen cinematography (the western landscape looks tough), and Martin Ritt’s (the sixth and final film he made with Newman) careful compositions, the film’s modernity stands up well 50 years later, not least in the ending. It presaged ‘New Hollywood’ – heralded by Easy Rider – by a couple of years but probably would sit comfortably alongside Little Big Man (‘probably’ because I haven’t seen it for a long time). According to Wikipedia (citing Variety – behind a paywall) Hombre took $6.5m in rentals at the domestic box office, it was the 14th top film of the year, though well behind Bonnie and Clyde, another movie that showed the type of films made by the Hollywood studio system were about to be consigned to the past.

One link to the past, in the film, is the casting of Frederic March, one of Hollywood’s heart-throbs of the 1930s. Diane Cilento, an Australian who spent most of her career in Britain, is excellent as a ‘moral conscience’ despite her admission that, even though she is unmarried, she shares her bed with the local sheriff. It was unusual for such a ‘loose woman’ to be presented as such; she’s not a victim like many ‘tarts with a heart’ played by, for example, Claire Trevor in Stagecoach. I liked the line when she is – for purely practical reasons – trying to persuade the sheriff to marry her: “I don’t say ‘no’ when you wake me up in the middle of the night”. She’s rebuffed but she’s not bothered; the character is a strikingly modern woman for the time (sexual emancipation in the 1960s framed women as sexual active at the service of men). The screenplay’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel so sparkling dialogue is to be expected.

The film was produced by Hombre Productions; presumably created to produce this one film. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox.

The Big Trail (US, 1930)

A very big trail

This is a fascinating ‘prestige picture’ from the early days of Hollywood cinema. The fascination comes from John Wayne’s first lead, though his breakthrough Stagecoach is nine years in the future, and the staging of the wagon train trek west. Director Raoul Walsh and his crew go to extraordinary lengths for authenticity including wagons, and oxen, being lowered down cliffs, and crossing extremely fast rivers. The sense of threat to the settlers is palpable.

In the opening scene a montage of preparations at the start of the trail includes women washing their hair. However, this is ameliorated soon after when we see a woman wielding an axe. Unsurprisingly the narrative is dominated by men with a revenge sub plot not unlike that of Stagecoach, however it is the spectacle that is the most important element of the film.

It was shot in what was a new process, Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format that proved the film’s commercial undoing as few theatres could screen it as the studio wanted. The sound’s not bad but it’s clear the silent era isn’t far away from Tyrone Power’s (Sr.) execrable performance: he mugs and can’t speak a line.

Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

Hell or High Water (US, 2016)

Trapped by malicious circumstance

As American cinema, at last, sinks into artistic irrelevance it’s a delight to find the possibilities for interesting cinema haven’t completed died over the ‘pond’. I’m guilty of hyperbole here; for years snooty critics, only interested in art for what it says about their ‘cultural competence’ rather than genuine appreciation, have berated Hollywood in particular as being worthless. American cinema has produced, both in the indie and commercial sectors, many great films.

However contemporary Hollywood is, with its belief that franchises are the only game in town, neglecting the medium sized, not to mention small, movie so that 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ seems even longer than 50 years ago. Maybe even the most commercially oriented executives might be sweating over the box office under performances, in North America, of many of this year’s ‘tent pole’ releases; although the international market is baling them out at the moment.

Hell or High Water does hark back to ‘70s Hollywood and it probably just about broke even on its $12m estimated budget. The presence of Jeff Bridges, not entirely convincing in the role of the retiring sheriff, evokes that era’s The Last Picture Show (1970) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); particularly the latter with the outlaws on the road element. Director David Mackenzie’s insists that the setting, rundown Texas in the main, is an important character and, like its ‘70s forebears, politicises the narrative. Taylor Sheridan’s script ensures we understand that the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the American poor as much as the 1930s Depression.

Chris Pine shows himself to be a fine actor and Ben Foster, playing the older and wilder brother, is equally good. The film combines suspense, mystery (the brothers’ motivations) and humour as well as an excoriating critique of banking in America. I must catch up with Sheridan’s Sicario and David Mackenzie is one of my favourite contemporary directors.

The Revenant (US-Hong Kong-Taiwan, 2015)

Trying to do decent

It was probably my year in purdah that meant I missed seeing this brilliant film in the cinema. 2016: the year of Brexit, Trump and Lacey not watching movies. Well, in the grand scale my problem was a ‘hill of beans’ but I am sorry I didn’t see this on the big screen.

There’s little point in trying to define what is the essence of cinema as it refers to many things. In the current issue of Sight & Sound Nick James talks about how the visual aspect is crucial whilst, even today with the increase of ‘quality television’, the script remains paramount on the domestic screen. I’m inclined to agree especially if editing is included.

Ironically in Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman there – apparently – was no editing and he does have a predilection for the long take; see Y tu mama tambien. He combines the fluid Steadicam movement with virtuoso editing (Stephen Mirrone) in the battle scene at the start of the film. After a killing we follow the killer until they, soon, too are dead and then we ‘catch a ride’ with his killer and so on. This is one of the most devastating battle scenes I’ve seen as it emphasises the high chances of death in war. In most film’s battle sequences we focus on the protagonist who, for obvious reasons, is highly likely to survive.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, suitably grim winter mise en scene, is brilliant and, if I can forgive Tom Hardy’s mumble, the performances convey the blunt machismo that was probably necessary to survive beyond the frontier. The chameleon Domhnall Gleeson deserves a special mention as the decent Captain who strives to do the right thing.

Certain Women (US, 2016)

‘Hostage situation? No problem.’

It has taken over twenty years for writer-director Kelly Reichardt to complete seven features; not a terrible average for a mainstream director but an excellent one for someone who ploughs a distinctively indie furrow that doesn’t compromise. Her previous film, Night Moves, was more generic that Certain Women but I much preferred the latter. The film before that, Meek’s Cutoff, was a western filtered through Reichardt’s feminism. I haven’t seen her first four films.

From what I have seen it is clear that Reichardt’s concerned with women’s experiences and Certain Women gives us three tales that, tangentially, cross. Common to all are women’s battles against their lot where the dice are loaded against them by patriarchy. Laura Dern’s lawyer (Laura), in the first tale, finds a recalcitrant client only understands that his situation is hopeless when a male lawyer tells him. She later finds herself trying to talk down this client, who’s holding a hostage at gunpoint. Amongst the wintry landscape, dominated paradoxically by a distant Montana mountain range, there is deadpan humour. When it’s suggested that Laura is not qualified to deal with a hostage situation, the chief of police looks at her and she shrugs and says, ‘Well I’m here!” and goes ahead. Laura finds it difficult to deny men.

‘Why does it have to be so hard?’

Michelle Williams (Gina), in a narrative I struggled to follow somewhat, has to battle the passivity of her husband (who’s being unfaithful to her with Laura) and an alienated daughter. At a party (celebrating the Superbowl?) Gina hands her husband food, he’s watching the game, and he tells her to “stop working” and promptly asks for a beer.

‘I’m successful. Right?’

Kristen Stewart also plays a lawyer; she’s newly qualified and finds herself travelling for eight hours twice a week to deliver an evening class. Stewart’s exhaustion is writ large in the bags under her eyes but she is charismatic enough to catch the attention of a lonely ranch hand; astonishingly played by Lily Gladstone. The nameless ranch hand looks to have Native American Indian ancestry, further reinforcing the western references. You’ll have noticed it is a stellar cast but it is Gladstone that shines the most.

A glowing Gladstone

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women is a western; or rather a ‘Twilight’ western. The melancholic post-19th century take on the end of America’s ‘manifest destiny’. Trumpism is the complete disavowal, in its insularity, of America as a place of freedom; however, this isn’t a new phenomenon because once the frontier of the ‘wild west’ closed the institutions of society necessarily constrained freedoms. This conflict may explain much of what is wrong with America: from guns to libertarianism.

Reichardt’s ‘certain women’ are trapped by their circumstance as are the men; Laura’s client has been shafted by his company; the second Laura’s husband reeks apathy. After seeing Certain Women I watched Elle for a second time and I was struck more forcibly by the men’s pathetic attitudes. Reichardt’s vision certainly influenced mine.