The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.
The western is an iconic genre tied to the very genesis of cinema itself, but it doesn’t have the currency it held decades ago. That’s why it’s such a thrill to see Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and Valeski Grisebach’s “Western” — two highlights from this year’s New York Film Festival — reshape the genre from the ground up.
It’s only possible to appreciate that if you consider how far the genre has come. The western reigned Hollywood for decades—particularly from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. The genre’s appeal was that its unequivocal good vs. evil narrative could translate to any cultural zeitgeist. It wasn’t until Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Sam Peckinpagh’s “The Wild Bunch” that the genre began to shed its pat moralism and embrace the nihilistic recalcitrance of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Post-Vietnam westerns became sites of gritty ambiguity and the heroic cowboy’s metamorphosis into an anti-hero with obscure ethics. Since these films questioned and subverted the western genre’s ideologies, they became known as “revisionist westerns.”
This label has since developed into an umbrella term that encompasses the many guises of contemporary western cinema. These films either imbue the western’s generic tropes within the modern era (“No Country for Old Men,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), focus on the genre’s marginalized characters, particularly women (“The Homesman,” “Jane Got a Gun”), or are a pastiche (“In a Valley of Violence,” “Slow West”). Even though contemporary westerns have splintered off into a wide range of defining narrative and formal qualities, “The Rider” and “Western” still manage to reinvigorate the genre.
Both movies employ a unique docu-fiction style, both Chloe Zhao and Valeski Grisebach cast actors to play versions of themselves and constructed narratives loosely based on their lives — and neither movie relied on a traditional screenplay. These inventive techniques provide a sense of candid verisimilitude rarely seen in the scrupulously-constructed western genre.
It is rare to see female directors behind the camera of male-centric westerns, and it is Zhao and Grisebach’s feminine perspective that attests to their fine critique of the gender structures reinforced by western cinema. These women dismantle the mythological masculinity of the iconic cowboy figure, fracturing the impetus of the “strong, silent type” through a sensitive examination of his vulnerabilities and rejection of masculine expectations. The directors also recodify other formal and narrative elements of the western, particularly the civilization versus wilderness conflict.
As a rodeo prodigy, Brady (Brady Jandreau) cannot stave off his zealous desire for life on the frontier—so much so that he’s willing to endanger his well-being. Despite a painful and traumatic head injury, he continues to pursue what he believes is his God-given vocation. “Once a cowboy, always a cowboy,” Brady reminds himself, and nothing will stand in the way of his indefatigable commitment to riding horses.
Zhao pictures this pious act with an exquisite cinematic beauty and poetic reverence; shot in slow motion, the viewer reveres each muscular ripple of the regal galloping creature’s back and lingers on Brady in a gentle repose as the breeze rustles his hair. Zhao also conveys Brady’s idolatry of the frontier through stunning Fordian landscapes of pastel-purple skies and golden sunsets that are so expansive they seem to swallow up his tiny figure. When juxtaposed against the harsh fluorescents of his monotonous dollar store job, the exteriors of his Midwestern home seem positively mythical.
Being a cowboy is the very fabric of Brady’s identity. His stalwart father (Tim Jandreau) encourages him to “be a man” in the model of western genre heroes past, a paragon of immutable strength, and continue riding. With his monk-like taciturnity and obdurate gaze, Brady certainly embodies the “strong, silent type,” but when his injury worsens and hands frequently freeze up in a fist, Brady fights the urge to speak up. His cowboy friends—who have all endured their fair share of rodeo wounds— insist that he must “ride through the pain.” But what happens when the pain is truly too great? Does admitting that make him any less of a man? His best friend and ex-rodeo star (Lane Scott) left paralyzed after a riding accident should serve as a cautionary tale, but somehow he motivates Brady to persevere.
Brady is just as devoted to his family as he is horses. Left without a mother, he cares tremendously for his sister with developmental disabilities. On the other hand, Meinhard of “Western” (Meinhard Neumann), the “strong silent type,” embodies the preeminent shot in “The Searchers”; like John Wayne’s character, he has no familial ties and is caught between a proverbial doorway that either leads into the embrace of community or enables him to retreat back into the darkness of his nomadism.
“There’s nothing to keep me at home,” is one of the few autobiographical facts he admits, along with his past as a Foreign Legion soldier. Despite his pacifism—“violence isn’t my thing”—he’s ready to defend his friends when needed, as demonstrated in one scene when he swiftly threatens an interloper with a gun after he dares to cross his new friend. The reformed fighter and outlaw, or a man who has buried the violent sins of his past, is a common western archetype.
Disgusted by his cruel boss, a brute who teases women and steals the community’s water supply, Meinhard rejects the herd mentality of his savage and hyper-masculine construction crew who infiltrate the Bulgarian countryside. Eventually, Meinard discovers a white horse, its color symbolic of a peace offering for the suspicious but congenial inhabitants of the nearby village. His conflict diverges from Brady of “The Rider” because he wishes to abandon the frontier and find solace in others, leading him to construct a makeshift family of his own out of the villagers. Griesbach also displaces the western’s American setting for Bulgaria and reconfigures the xenophobic cowboy vs. Indians narrative through the tense German and Bulgarian relations.
Both “Western” and “The Rider” are distinct portraits that revitalize the contemporary western. While the definition of a western today is multifarious—no singular aspect emblematic of its makeup— “The Rider” and “Western” stand apart from all others through the combination of their feminine perspective, rejection of the cowboy figure’s masculinity, and docu-drama styles. If they provide us a window into the modern state of the genre, it looks a lot brighter than it did a few years ago.