This week, it might feel a lot like Marvel-brand Avenging is the only game in town, but for anyone who wants a quieter, more nourishing time at the movies than the smash-quip-fight-quip-boom rhythm of Joss Whedon‘s inescapable blockbuster, David Oelhoffen‘s great Algeria-set western, “Far From Men” also opens. Our review from Venice is here, but to summarize, the film is a lovely, elegiac portrait of a hesitant friendship between opposites (played brilliantly by Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb), and draws strength from its stunning cinematography, its setting in the mountains and desert plains of civil war-torn Algeria, and its evocative score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
It’s a film both new and familiar, as despite the language the characters speak, the cultural specificity of their problems, and the fact that it is based on an Albert Camus short story, it is unmistakably a western in the truest sense: one that has little to do with actual geography, and more with a kind of frontier land of the soul that is reflected in the landscape and circumstances of the characters. The western is such a resilient genre, commenting on the world in such a timeless manner, that it can recognizably survive such transitions of place and period. In fact, these days it arguably thrives even better in new conditions, given a kind of regenerating hybrid vigor, and that’s not even making the case that so many of our best-known franchises — even the comic-book heritage of Marvel and DC films — owe a great debt to the genre’s archetypal storytelling.
But “Far from Men” does not disguise its western roots with sci-fi like “Star Wars,” an urban setting like “Assault on Precinct 13,” or noir elements like “Drive.” And so while we hope to look at some more heavily disguised westerns in the future, right now we’re taking a time out from Hulk! Smash! to look at eight other recognizably western westerns that, for better or worse, simply take place in regions and/or periods far removed from the Dodge Cities and Tombstones of America in the 1800s.
“The Proposition“ (2006)
This list has a couple of titles on it that, whatever their virtues, are really examples of classic westerns which were just picked up and plunked down artificially in a new environment, as though to see what happens. But the greatness of John Hillcoat’s terrific Aussie take on the genre, the Nick Cave-scripted and scored (again, along with Warren Ellis) “The Proposition,” is that it feels indigenous, as though native seeds took root in arid Outback soil, before organically taking a shape that just so happened to resemble a western. So as true as it feels to the dramatic swells and swoops of a John Ford (or more accurately Sam Peckinpah) title, it feels just as much so to Cave’s lugubrious, haunted Australianness, and to Hillcoat’s precise eye for the starkness of the scorched landscapes and parched, sun-roughened faces. A monumental, almost mythic tale told with the kind of laconic intimacy that makes it feel allegorical, it follows three outlaw brothers, a kind of familial Good Bad and Ugly, as the middle one (Guy Pearce) makes a deal to save the youngest by finding and killing the eldest (Danny Huston). But beyond the plot and the sporadic violence, there are all sort of other textures, most thrillingly and dangerously, a kind of admiration for the perverse nobility of choosing a life of criminality. Doomed and desperate though it is, it is somehow more honest than the domestic hypocrisy of the settler experiment, and it shoots the film through with a very Cave-esque sadness: ferocious and beautiful.
“7 Women” (1966)
John Ford’s last film (and you can find a write-up on it and 21 other Final Films here) is an arresting reworking of the genre of which he was the father, grandfather and Godfather all at once. And it’s not just for its transposition of the lean story from the American West to 1930s rural China, nor the substitution of the “Red Indian” scare for a Mongolian warlord and his marauding gang. Here Ford also populates this most masculine of genres almost entirely with women, right down to the swaggering cynical outsider (Anne Bancroft) who emerges as the reluctant hero. Set on a remote mission outpost in an area being gradually abandoned by the authorities in the face of attacks from the “barbarian” hordes, Bancroft plays the doctor who comes to attend to the missionaries, but who faces prejudice from the stiffly devout mission leader played by Margaret Leighton (whose thwarted sexual drive is strongly hinted to be the motivation behind her piety). If the characters are broadly drawn, it’s still fascinating to see these archetypes embodied by women, especially in the context of a story critical of intolerance and religious inflexibility (surprisingly coming from the devoutly Catholic Ford). It is always fascinating to be able to take a meta-view of a great director’s career and see him work through his themes, develop his philosophy and even change his mind, and “7 Women” has moments that function almost as grace notes to a career that defined the western as we know it.
“No Man’s Land“ (2014)
It can sometimes feel like the standard western has such a well-defined set of conventions and archetypes that it can offer nothing new — doubtless part of the reason the genre has had a hard time of it recently at the box office. And there is certainly nothing new in Ning Hao‘s Chinese state-funded modern-day western “No Man’s Land,” but the eccentric brio and inventiveness with which he combines all the old elements makes the film feel irresistibly fresh anyway. Playing in Berlin in 2014, its unapologetic genre-love saw it overshadowed by the more arthousey Chinese offerings (“Black Coal Thin Ice” even won the Golden Bear that year) so much so that we missed it that time around. Our loss it turns out, as “No Man’s Land” is a terrific time at the movies, a rambunctious, enjoyable flick that borrows liberally from the George Miller school of filmmaking (especially in the orangey cast to the desert landscapes, and the spectacular, practical vehicular collisions and explosions). A smarmy city lawyer learns a lorryload of life lessons as he tries to leave a backwater town in the middle of the Gobi desert, getting mixed up with falcon poachers, local gangsters, a terminally untruthful girl on the run, a big bag of money and several outcast locals of the violent and inbred variety en route to a finale in which characters topple like dominoes. Played with a straight face, there’s still a deep vein of self-aware black comedy throughout that, along with its terrific filmmaking craft, makes “No Man’s Land” a delicious and invigorating treat for fans of the western genre.
“Dear Wendy“ (2004)
A film not so much critically derided, as gunned down mercilessly from all sides, its corpse left to rot where it fell, it’s always been a lonely business to be a fan of Thomas Vinterberg‘s “Dear Wendy” (written by Lars von Trier). But it’s a furrow I’ve ploughed, because while I understand some of the frustrations with the film — it’s about as subtle as balcony collapse, and deeply enamored of the curlicues and fancy-pantsiness of its styling — there’s a great deal to admire in it too. A self-consciously ironic, highly stylized, experimental examination of American gun culture that follows a group of gun-obsessed teens, led by Jamie Bell, who form a gun club that inevitably leads to a massive bloody shootout — it’s an unashamedly alien, foreign perspective on a very American issue. But if the guns-are-bad-and-guns-corrupt moralism is pretty obvious, there is insight elsewhere into the lure of gun ownership, especially for the young (the narration is in the form a of a love letter from Bell’s character to his gun, which he has called Wendy). Vinterberg and Von Trier, are not just preaching, they’re acknowledging their own fascination too, in the fetishistic way they treat not just the weapons and the non-specific, vaguely Southern, modern-day Americana of the setting but the violence that ensues, resulting in a film as consciously conflicted about its central themes as its protagonists. “Dear Wendy” derives its edge of melancholy by being a critique of American gun love delivered in the shape of a Western, but one that is archly aware that the myth-making of the genre is as complicit in bolstering the glamor of gun ownership as anything else in popular culture.
“The Rover“ (2014)
With this and “The Proposition,” you could be forgiven for thinking that we hold every Australia-set quasi-western in high regard as a hard-baked future classic, so here’s a link to our review of Ryan Kwanten‘s “Red Hill” to disavow that misconception. But David Michôd‘s underseen and dramatically different followup to “Animal Kingdom” is another kind of beast (our Cannes review), with its peri-apocalyptic setting giving it more the vibe of an existential, less action-oriented “Mad Max.” However within this desolate and desperate environment of societal collapse and alienation, the narrative that emerges is as much that of a classic western as anything, right down to the central man on a mission (Guy Pearce). He is never referred to by name, and is motivated by simple, linear revenge until his relationship with a naif (Robert Pattinson) causes his buried humanity to creak to the barest glimmer of life. But this is not a world in which the actions of men can make a difference anyway, and swallowed up in the unforgiving vastness, venality holds sway over the remnants of civilization. In fact Pearce’s tiny arc perhaps recalls best the boiled-dry motivations of the early Leone spaghetti westerns, or the brutality-as-philosophy ethos of Sam Peckinpah. Yet Michod undercuts the exculpatory self-seriousness of those influences with the irony of his ending when we discover just what this trail of carnage has all been in the name of — like the best neo-westerns, Michod’s film mines the genre’s conventions just enough to set up their oddly satisfying subversion.
“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974)
With director Sam Peckinpah more or less the patron saint (or reigning demon) of the scuzzy, violent, morally unhinged western, to assert that “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” is maybe his grimiest film is no faint claim. His third and final collaboration with the great Warren Oates, the film was shot on a bargain budget in contemporary Mexico, which perhaps accounts for its cheap-tequila effect on the senses, and the hellish hangover it can induce. A wealthy Mexican businessman places a bounty on the titular character, who impregnated his daughter. Among the vultures that descend is a local barkeep played by Oates, a venal reprobate (Oates reportedly modelled the character on Peckinpah himself, even borrowing the director’s trademark glasses) who on discovering that Garcia is already dead, resolves to dig him up, behead his corpse and claim a payout anyway. He meets and, after his fashion, falls for Garcia’s prostitute ex-girlfriend along the way (giving Peckinpah the chance to create some atypically romantic scenes early on before his more frequent misogyny rears its head). Amid the boozing, chasing, killing and attempted rapes, though, most surprising is the almost fraternal affection that Oates’ desperado projects onto the rotting head in a burlap sack that is his companion for much of the journey. In Peckinpah’s vision of Mexican desert as the literal and figurative ends of the earth, it makes a strange kind of sense that the film’s most human relationship should be between a no-good antihero who has lost everything, and a dead man’s fly-infested disembodied head.
“The Dark Valley” (2014)
Debuting at the 2014 Berlinale (our full review is here) and slipping quietly onto DVD in January of this year, Andreas Prochaska‘s Austrian western is an oddity, no mistake. Featuring impressively monochromatic cinematography, all black dirt, leaden skies, and blood that pools like oil, it’s a wildly over-familiar story set in the unfamiliar terrain of the Austrian Alps, with a borderline baffling choice of leading man in the British Sam Riley, who, like the rest of the cast, speaks German throughout. Though of course, he plays the out-of-towner, the strong, silent man-on-a-mission, so there’s not too much gasbagging anyway. It’s not that Riley can’t play an Austrian, it’s just that it’s hard to discern what he brings to the role that a native Austrian does not have, and it’s just one of many dangling questions that the film’s sludgy rhythms and constantly portentous mood give us too much time to think about. The larger issue that hovers over the whole endeavor, though, is whether there’s any point to the transposition of these archetypes to the snowy wintertime mountains of Austria, bar giving the MVP cinematographer Thomas Kiennast a backdrop very different from the western’s traditional wide desert vistas (it’s an interesting contrast to “Far From Men,” which derives a great deal of its power from its historical Algerian setting). Heavy on atmospherics, light on surprises, with a story that feels distilled from the peelings of a thousand other westerns, it’s only its resolute dourness and complete lack of a funny bone that pulls “The Dark Valley” up short of being a pastiche.
“Sukiyaki Western Django” (2008)
Immense is the field of fucks Takashi Miike does not give about making sense in this gonzo mashup, which, like its title, is in fact less “mash” than a rocky admixture of disparate elements. But not necessarily in a bad way. Every Western trope you can think of plays out against the backdrop of a punky inter-gang rivalry (handily color coded red and white) in quasi-mythical Japan, as a mysterious black-clad stranger rides into town. Yet under its own inexplicable steam, the film, which starts with a prologue starring Quentin Tarantino, gains a kind of momentum until before you know it, you’re having fun. Even those choices that feel like missteps initially begin to click, like the way the Japanese actors deliver their dialogue not just in English, but in hardboiled cowboy cliche (eg “You boys are a day late and a dollar short”), which starts out distracting, but soon becomes part of the dress-up-and-play charm. For something that scarcely takes itself seriously for a moment, it’s remarkably well shot, with the showy, oversaturated grade slicking heavy stylization onto surprisingly solid action sequences and a memorably batshit tableaux. Too loving to be a parody, and too daft to be a homage, “Sukiyaki Western Django” is splashy, silly nonsense, but it’s unlikely you’ll find a more entertaining shaggy dog backstory for Franco Nero‘s Django character (turns out he was basically the kid from “Shane,” only Japanese) no matter how many fake peach sunsets you ride off into.
This is merely a small selection from a much larger category, so please let us know your favorite non-traditional western, or even the ones you feel lose something in translation, in the comments below. In the meantime, the Playlist’s abiding love for the genre can be seen in how many features we’ve dedicated to it over the years, so check out our 22 Favorite Classic Westerns here, peruse our assessments of 9 Westerns Compared With Their Remakes here, chortle at 5 Comedy Westerns here, or ponder what could have been with these 5 Unmade Projects of Sergio Leone. And remember that if you’re looking for some summer tenptole counterprogramming, and can find a screen that isn’t showing ‘Avengers’ this weekend, “Far From Men” comes highly recommended.