Tag Archives: Western

A Friend in Me

News of the World

by Hope Madden

From the moment Sheriff Woody lamented that snake in his boot, it’s been inevitable that Tom Hanks would star in a Western. Not because he personifies the bruised masculinity, the solitary grit—that’s just ornamentation, anyway.

Tom Hanks would inevitably be the hero in a Western because we believe he would do the right thing, however difficult that is.

The Western News of the World is a film we’re less inclined to expect from director Paul Greengrass. His kinetic camerawork and near-verite style that lent realism to United 93 and added tension to his Jason Bourne films hardly suit a Western. He adapts with a more fluid camera that underscores the tension as well as the lyricism inherent in the genre.

He also takes full advantage of our faith in Tom Hanks.

Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town reading news stories to weary people looking for a distraction. In his travels he comes across a 10-year-old girl (Helena Zengel, wonderful) who’d been raised by Kiowa people and is now being returned against her will to her natural aunt and uncle.

Reluctantly, Captain Kidd agrees to transport her 200 miles across dangerous territory. Not because he wants to or because he will benefit in any way from it. In fact, he will probably die, and she with him.

Greengrass adapts Paulette Jiles’s nove with the help of Luke Davies. An acclaimed poet, Davies can be a handful for some directors. His material, even when done well, as it was with Garth Davis’s 2016 film Lion, can feel overwrought and overwritten. But Greengrass’s touch is lighter, his style always bending more toward realism than poetry, and here he’s struck a lovely balance.

Westerns lend themselves to poetry of a sort. News of the World offers a simple hero’s journey, understated by Greengrass’s influence and Tom Hanks’s natural abilities. A damaged soul faces an opportunity to prove himself, perhaps only to himself, and he takes it. And he is forever changed.

Heroes in Distress


by Hope Madden

A lot of people headed west for a new start. Damsel, the latest quirky comedy from David and Nathan Zellner, doesn’t believe a fresh start is in store for any of us.

“Things are going to be shitty in new and fascinating ways.”

Like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter —the filmmakers’ high water mark—Damsel is a gorgeous film marked with visual absurdity that emphasizes the uniquely bizarre nature of the human being.

Unlike Kumiko, Damsel is a Western.

A dandy stranger named Samuel (Robert Pattinson) arrives at your traditional, sorry-ass Western town to find the parson (David Zellner). He has a deal set with the parson. But an amazing opening sequence brimming with the beauty, brutality and existential angst of the Wild West means that we know something about the parson that Samuel doesn’t.

Of course, Samuel knows some things he’s not sharing with the parson as well. Soon enough, the two are off, along with the miniature horse Butterscotch, to find and marry Samuel’s beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).

Into the utterly typical Western architecture ride characters entirely lacking that nobility and destiny of the Hollywood classic. The result is not a spoof, it isn’t wacky in the Mel Brooks fashion. It’s thoughtful and humorous, deliberately gorgeous and just a tad melancholy.

Recent years have seen their fair share of revisionist Westerns, but few truly tinker with that romantic nobility associated with every character in quite the way Damsel does.

Pattinson, continuing his streak, is a wonder. He steals every scene and scenes without him suffer from the loss.

Wasikowska is solid as not just the traditional butt-kickin’ Western woman, but a revelation of the status quo. It will be her character that carries us through most of the film, and that is both an intriguing and thematically strong decision. It’s just not as funny.

The film turns on a bullet from silly misadventure to something more profound: a glimpse into the historical constant of toxic masculinity.

As much as the second half of the film scores points for insight, the humor is more depressing and scenes lack the bright, shiny idiocy of Pattinson’s Samuel.

This is not a dooming flaw. The film’s deceptively whimsical comedy offers a biting criticism of traditional, romantically-masculine storytelling.

Fresh Perspective


by Hope Madden

How many Westerns are told from the perspective of the American Indian?

None, basically. When First Nation filmmakers (Chris Eyre, Sydney Freeland, Neil Diamond, Sterlin Harjo, Adam Garnet Jones, among others) create, they seem to ignore the genre that has, for most of Hollywood’s history, defined them in popular culture.

Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Dead Man comes closest, as Gary Farmer’s character Nobody informs William Blake’s (Johnny Depp) journey. Though Farmer’s not the lead, it is his character’s perspective of the West that guides the film.

For co-writer/director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here), that’s not enough. His sophomore effort Mohawk spins a far more typically Western story: battle lines drawn between Mohawks and new Americans, each trying to secure a piece of American soil.

But Geoghegan changes things up in important ways, and the result is a dramatic departure from traditional fare.

Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) hopes to convince her mother that the dwindling Mohawk nation needs to side with the English in the War of 1812. If Wentahawi (Sheri Foster) can’t be convinced, Oak and her lovers, Mohawk Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) and Englishman Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren), will find her uncle and cousins at the mission and convince them.

What follows is an often brutal, certainly mournful look at a chapter in our national history no American should be proud of.

Essentially, as a small batch of white soldiers follows the trio through the woods, it is simply by altering the point of view—not by making any individual faultless or wise beyond measure—that Geoghegan shakes up the genre.

Horn’s Oak stands in stark contrast against garden variety Western heroes by virtue of her sex and her race, though Mohawk does not go to great lengths to make a “woman-centric” effort. Oak is simply another warrior, another survivor, a participant who happens to be our guide through this slaughter. This change of perspective is very simple and utterly revolutionary.

The sexuality of the three on the run from the military is another surprisingly subtle and quietly effective change.

Performances are solid—Horn and Ezra Buzzington as military leader Hezekiah Holt are particularly strong.

Geoghegan’s story (co-written with novelist Grady Hendrix) is as sadistic and brutal as we’ve come to expect from a Western—certainly from the burgeoning Western/horror mash-up. But if the plot chooses not to break new ground, the film still manages to offer a much-needed sting of rebellion.



Halloween Countdown, Day 4: Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

In 2015 -a year rife with exceptional Westerns – this film sets itself apart. S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut embraces the mythos of the Wild West, populating a familiar frontier town with weathered characters and casting those archetypes perfectly.

Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, in particular, easily inhabit the upright sheriff and eccentric side kick roles, while Patrick Wilson’s committed turn as battered, heroic lead offers an emotional center.

Even the heretofore unexceptional Matthew Fox finds a little wounded humanity in his swagger as Brooder, the fancy-lad sharp shooter who volunteers to help Wilson and posse find his wife, believed to have been nabbed by cannibals.

Cannibals?! Hell yeah!

Zahler effortlessly blends the horror and Western genres, remaining true to both and crafting a film that’s a stellar entry into either category. Bone Tomahawk looks gorgeous and boasts exceptional writing, but more than anything, it offers characters worthy of exploration. There are no one-note victims waiting to be picked off, but instead an assortment of fascinating people and complex relationships all wandering into mystical, bloody danger.

This is not your typical cowboys and Indians film – Zahler is (perhaps too) careful to clarify that. This is more of an evolutionary wonder taking place – kind of a Hills Have Eyes in 1869.

Because the true horror is a long time coming and you’re genuinely invested in the participants in this quest, the payoff is deeply felt. This is a truly satisfying effort, and one that marks a new filmmaker to keep an eye on.

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