Westerns Are Back, Darnit!
Recently, I came across an item on another comics and pop culture-related website that I found rather ridiculous. In this article, the writer suggested that Westerns, as a genre, were dead...and that Jonah Hex (especially its box office performance) helped kill them.
I'm here not to praise Jonah Hex, but to provide a counterpoint - that Westerns, as a genre, are going through a slight metamorphosis. And that one movie doesn't make or break an entire fictional genre...it only serves to provide a possible example of how not to work within that genre.
In defense of Jonah Hex - it is not the total, absolute train wreck of a movie that some people may proclaim it to be. In fact, Josh Brolin does an exceptional job at giving Hex a strong emotional depth with the appropriate amount of grit, restraint, and reserve. However, the film suffers from a slightly overstuffed screenplay, with too many elements coming into play. Any one of the various strands presented in the film (Hex's ability to talk to the dead, the more steampunk-oriented elements, the Spaghetti Western-style vibe) would have been enough to make for a clear, strong narrative; having them all in play make the film a slightly difficult view. Some of the actors cast in supporting roles tend to either chew the scenery (John Malkovich) or threaten to blend into it (Megan Fox). (Lance Reddick is a sole holdout, turning a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo into a pretty strong presence). All of these factors weaken the film's impact, but not to the point of making it as atrocious Wild Wild West with Will Smith.
(Interesting piece of Jonah Hex-related trivia: one of the producers of Jonah Hex was Matt LeBlanc. That's right - the star of Friends and Episodes had a co-producing role in this movie. I am glad to help educate and inform on matters like this).
But I will argue that Westerns are nowhere near beinga dead genre - just turn on your television (or other media device) and you'll find some quality work. These shows are rarely, if ever, straightforward cowboy-and-sagebrush sagas (HBO's Deadwood helped morph Westerns out of that particular field), but themes about one man taking on lawlessness; being a solitary figure for justice in a lonely plain continue to be prevalent in popular culture, even if their shows may be less than popular. They also do more for making Stetsons cool than Matt Smith and Steven Moffat could ever hope to.
The one obvious example of the modern-day Western is F/X's Justified, which recently ended its third season. Oh, sure, Timothy Olyphant played a similar role on Deadwood, but beyond that, there's a strong Western-tinged story engine driving this show. You wouldn't think that a show inspired by an Elmore Leonard short story would be so down-to-earth...but that's what makes it so effective. Leonard cut his storytelling teeth by writing for Western pulps (Evidence can be found in the book The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard), so it shouldn't be surprised that his usual storytelling skills are used to great effect in the series. Yes, I'm in the middle of the second season, but there's a reason why this show has exploded - it's Western-style themes and elements used in a contemporary setting with liberal amounts of humor, and is definitely a must-watch.
Taking a slightly different, more low-key tone is A & E's Longmire, in which a fictional county in Wyoming (being portrayed by various locations in New Mexico) is as much a character as any of the leads. Focusing on a sheriff recovering from the loss of his wife, the show is a much more low-key, traditionally mystery-based affair. The focus is less on wham-bang action and more on the interplay between characters. In an odd way, the mood of Longmire is extremely reminiscent of The Searchers with John Wayne. (Yes, that is something of a stretch, and yes, you are more than welcome to call me on it in the forum). Think of it as using different Western themes and elements than Justified, but serving the same effect - telling an engaging, emotionally affecting story.
Finally, for those who enjoy a slightly more historically-oriented Western, AMC's Hell on Wheels is a gritty, affecting tale of a former Union soldier seeking revenge for the deaths of his wife and son. The story is set against the backdrop of the first Transcontinental railroad in 1865, and the post-Civil War dynamics provide a great level of interplay and tension amongst the various characters. Granted, it is not always an easy watch, but in many ways resembles Mad Men in how it examines some modern tensions within a historical context. (Yes, that's another stretch. I admit it). But it's also a must-watch show in its own right - it's available on DVD, and the second season begins on August 12th.
So in summary, for those who believe that Jonah Hex somehow meant the end of the Western...you're wrong. Jonah Hex's only crime was trying to do too much within a specific format - there's plenty of good performances and strong ideas to make it a good Saturday afternoon view. But for those who believe the Western is dead or dying...just simply turn on your television. You have three good examples to prove you wrong.
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As we ride on into the sunset with this column, as always....keep watching!
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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