2021 marked return of the Western, from revisionist tales in Concrete Cowboy to modern takes like The Power of the Dog
As good as 2021 was for the Western, one cannot finish this assessment without addressing the Rust set tragedy. You can have all the gun-twirling scenes you want onscreen but Hollywood simply cannot afford to have any more accidents on set, lest the Western genre itself fall out of favour.
On 1 December, Netflix released Jane Campion’s new film The Power of the Dog, a Western psycho-sexual drama based on a 1960s novel by Thomas Savage. Impeccably shot, with Campion’s signature bleak beauty shining through in every frame, the film follows the fortunes of rancher brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), after the latter marries an alcoholic widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who has a young son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
During several crucial scenes in the movie, Campion interrogates and gradually chips away at certain masculine tropes associated with the Western genre. Phil, played to perfection by a red-hot Cumberbatch, represents the archetype of the endlessly rugged cowboy: a stoic hero undefeated by Man, God or Nature. George is the softer, kinder, more compassionate man who usually gets nothing but ridicule for his empathetic ways, most notably from Phil, who is openly scornful of his brother’s 'weakness.'
Perhaps it is fitting that 2021, a massive year for revisionist Westerns (The Harder They Fall and Old Henry, most notably), ended with The Power of the Dog and Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho, two clear-eyed, largely conventional explorations of the genre. Campion and Eastwood reminded audiences of the enduring appeal of a well-made Western: the clothes, the guns, the morality parables, the unyielding New Mexico sun (New Mexico is where a lot of Westerns continue to be shot).
It is Hollywood’s equivalent of a folk tale template, essentially. The so-called ‘wild west’ becomes a space of churning, where the best and worst of Man is revealed before the audience.
In my opinion, two Idris Elba starrers on Netflix did the most for the Western genre in 2021: Concrete Cowboy (released in April) and The Harder They Fall (released in November). In the former, Elba plays a Harp, a tough but fair father to a troubled 15-year-old boy named Cole. The film is inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia; several real-life members make cameo appearances in the film, talking about the problems faced by the Fletcher community. Two things immediately stand out about Concrete Cowboy — one, how the concept of ‘urban cowboys’ is used as a metaphor for the generation gap between Harp and Cole. And two, the strength of Elba’s performance as Harp, the urban cowboy who must teach his son how to be a good person (as opposed to being a particularly manly man).
If Concrete Cowboy was the Western being ‘corrected’ by realist impulses, The Harder They Fall was wish fulfilment revisionism at its finest. Although the story featured several real-life outlaws like Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) and lawmen like Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), the concept of an all-Black town in the 19th century American West was obviously fictional. Redwood, the town in question, was built from scratch by the production crew, a remarkable achievement. But then, The Harder They Fall is that kind of film, where every little touch, every stylistic flourish seems to pay off big time.
If you have watched the music video for ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X (featuring Billy Ray Cyrus), you will see that Nas makes several references to both old cowboy movie tropes (dressing in black, for one, like the villains in Sergio Leone movies), and more contemporary, ‘urban cowboy’ comparisons (“riding on my horse, ha/ you can whip your Porsche”). Narratively, the work done by the father-son bonds in Concrete Cowboy or even The Harder They Fall is similar to what Nas is doing with the ‘Old Town Road’ music video — it is carving out a space for Blackness within the cowboy canon. It is also drawing a straight line between the past and the present of Black cowboys, showing us the racist historiography behind some of the genre conventions.
As good as Elba and company were in The Harder They Fall (Regina King, in particular), the definitive cowboy role of the year went to the superb Tim Blake Nelson, who played the titular role in Old Henry. Blake plays Henry McCarty, an embittered old farmer forced to confront his ultraviolent past after taking in a man on the run. Now, anybody with a passing interest in the Western genre knows that Henry McCarty is a very famous name indeed —it is the birth name of Billy the Kid (1859-1881), real-life outlaw and one of the most famous characters in the Western canon. Despite this handicap, Old Henry is a riveting watch because of Nelson’s electric performance, alternatively tragic and brutal in his expression. Nelson played a kind of polar opposite cowboy character in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an exuberant, devil-may-care sharpshooter with a song on his lips. As Henry McCarty/Billy the Kid, he proves that his Buster Scruggs style is backed up with solid steel.
As good as 2021 was for the Western, one cannot finish this assessment without addressing the tragic death of Halyna Hutchins on the set of the Alec Baldwin-produced-Western, Rust. Hutchins died after Baldwin accidentally fired a gun that was pointed towards her; the actor-producer claims that he was handed a ‘cold gun’ or a weapon only carrying blanks. Instead, the gun was carrying live rounds, and Hutchins died of her gunshot wounds (director Joel Souza was wounded). Ever since this incident, several actors have called for stricter gun control/oversight mechanisms on Hollywood sets, with some (like Dwayne Johnson and Chris Hemsworth) calling for all real-gun-usage to be stopped altogether.
Rust was supposed to be a full-blooded Western, with plenty of gun violence and bloodshed onscreen; this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Producers and directors need to respect the safety concerns of their crews, something conspicuously absent on the sets of Rust. In fact, unionised crew members, who demanded better safety standards and other provisions, were summarily replaced by non-union professionals.
Attitudes like this one do the Western a great disservice, I feel. You can have all the gun-twirling scenes you want onscreen but Hollywood simply cannot afford to have any more accidents on set, lest the Western genre itself fall out of favour. Like Henry McCarty says in a scene from Old Henry, ‘There are some shadows that ain’t never passing you over’.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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