“There remain only intimations of squalor and suffering, of rough beasts stumbling across the landscape without any stability or security in sight.”
Between the broken foothills of Signal, Wyoming and the dry, flat plains of northern Texas, cramped towns periodically dot the landscape, not so much erupting out of it as clutching it tight, holding steadfast to dying hopes tied up in the land. Alongside the magnificent vistas of Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), it is possible to find the decrepitude, intolerance and claustrophobia of a civilization releasing its last breath: the film’s emotional Ground Zero is the close, grungy home of Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), shored up by wary glances and quiet desperation, the slate grays and dusty tans suggesting a place on the point of vanishing altogether. Though the gay romance at the heart of the film shatters the mold of the traditional Western — no men in white hats riding in to save the day, no Gary Cooper waiting around at high noon for the gauntlet to be thrown — its borderlands form the site where the genre’s enduring themes inevitably clash, where individual freedom and social obligation, tenuous capitalism and Jeffersonian yeomanry, the fierce promise and final devastation of the American Dream, hit up against one another with irrevocable force. The musty, mothballed atmosphere of pained faces and mismatched clutter that Lee conjures in Ennis and Alma’s tiny town may lack the grandeur of Monument Valley, but the hard-nosed ordinariness has a heft all its own. Brokeback Mountain is part of a decade-long spate of new, wide-ranging “Westerns,” each exploring the notion that the West may no longer be the place recognizable from Stagecoach and Gunsmoke. But in films and television shows as divergent in tone and subject matter as 3:10 to Yuma and There Will Be Blood, Don’t Come Knocking and No Country for Old Men, Deadwood, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Assassination of Jesse James, “The West” remains a vital idea, an organizing theme of the American self-conception, embodying hopes and disappointments clung to as fervently as the ground itself.
Even in the least self-consciously modern of the films, director James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the horsemanship and cowboy hats of the post-bellum Southwest seem mere window-dressing for a tale deeply critical of the intertwining role of corporations and the government in the building of the West. The drama begins not with outlaws wreaking havoc in a town somewhere along the frontier, but with debt collectors burning down rancher Dan Evans’ barn to make good on an unpaid loan; the catalyst for the narrative, in which Evans (Christian Bale) transports dangerous prisoner Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma, is the $200 offered for completing the task, by which Evans hopes to keep his farm out of the hands of the railroad. In 3:10 to Yuma the construction of the West (as locale and ideology at once) does not occur in spite of the criminal greed of railroad men and Pinkerton guards, but because of it. What constitutes “order” is an undemocratic, indeed undignified, stripping down of the little man until he is nothing. Civilization is inherently wild; it’s just that the wildness of unrestrained capitalism has been made allowable by the oft-repeated refrain of free market catechism. “Sometimes a man has to be big enough to see how small he is,” the loan officer tells Evans early in the film. “Railroad’s comin’, Dan. Your land’s worth more with you off it.”
In lionizing the honorable anarchy of men who play by different rules — even Wade, a dark, near-evil creature, does right when he gives Evans a few dollars for steed killed in a robbery, and he says, about a money-hungry railroad man recounting his crimes, “You notice he didn’t even mention all the lives I’ve taken” — Yuma owes much to The Wild Bunch, to Peckinpah’s misanthropic and ambivalent view of what it means to be an outlaw. In the new Westerns, the forces of the frontier’s tenuous order are at worst outlaws themselves, like Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, and at best entirely inept, failures tricked by the disconnection of a steam engine from a passenger car or gunned down by burglars stronger — could it be said braver? — than they could ever hope to be. Yet the outlaws themselves hold order of a certain kind, at least within their own microcosm of society, in the highest esteem: “I either lead this bunch or end it right now,” Pike tells his men, trying to maintain his benevolent dictatorship. “Go on. Go for it. Fall apart.” In this world of makeshift tents and half-drunk bottles of whiskey, of beards slicked and stained by chewing tobacco and Spanish ballads sung in the night air as embers hang like dust motes beneath the stars, “civilization” means a certain kind of tyranny, in which the idea of the West is gradually dismantled even by those who follow its unwritten code. In Peckinpah’s West, and the West as it is viewed onscreen today, things fall apart; the center cannot hold; there remain only intimations of squalor and suffering, of rough beasts stumbling across the landscape without any stability or security in sight.
The Wild Bunch, then, did not destroy the Western so much as expand it, providing a template for the breaking down of the genre’s conventions and iconography to make it engage with a fallen world. To wit: the Western isn’t dead, it’s as strong as it has been in perhaps three decades. Peckinpah’s work broadened the possibilities of what a Western could contain, providing a precursor to gay cowboys, chase sequences, morally ambiguous protagonists; in the process, it opened up the genre to harsh critiques of the American West’s traditional mores: homophobia (Brokeback Mountain), xenophobia (Three Burials), capitalism (3;10 to Yuma, There Will Be Blood), even violence itself (No Country for Old Men). This, of course, had been done before, in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Searchers, but never with such finality, such terrifying commitment. “It ain’t like it used to be,” old Sykes says to end The Wild Bunch, with a plaintive resignation suggesting a man who has given up on the idealistic West he may once have sought. “But it’ll do.” In this vein, rather than depicting a West quickly brought to heel, the contemporary Western (whether set in the past or the present) suggests the dangers of unrealistic expectations. Throughout The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah displays the patent absurdity of the romanticized West — as when he juxtaposes a lively song crooned from the back of a train with sharp bursts of ordnance and bloodied bodies writhing on the dirt.
The brutal, trying violence of the contemporary Westerns performs the same function. 3:10 to Yuma‘s finale, a deadly battle in Contention City between Wade’s crew and the marshals desperately attempting, with Evans, to get Wade on the train, is on its own an unflinching massacre of the notion that the government, indeed all social institutions, are there to protect us. As the capitalists and lawmakers abandon the task, Evans remains. He relates the railroad man’s offer that he just take the $200 and run away with the Union Army’s payment for a leg he lost in the Civil War: “It’s funny, if you think about it,” he says. “They weren’t paying me to walk away. They were paying me so they could walk away.” The new Westerns, like The Wild Bunch, end in a “blaze of glory” — or at least a battle royale — that smacks more of desolation than redemption, of paradises lost and promises eternally broken. The Western in all its forms has always been a lens of self-examination, an excavation of social corpses, particularly in times of trouble or unease — it is no coincidence that the three major cycles of the Western in American film history have occurred alongside the Great Depression and World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, and the battles of the post-September 11 era. The Western is the genre that wraps up all our mythologizing about money and land, freedom and order, into a single package, the blank slate upon which all our hopes and dreams, deposits and withdrawals, can be indelibly written. The Western is the genre by which we continually express our fear that the accounts — of both the national debt and the national mandate — have been overdrawn.
Thus the gruesome killings that end The Wild Bunch come with a sharp, unexpected explosion of blood, implying that the terror finds its roots not in the killing but in the chaos it causes. What’s worse is that the violence, the chaos, so often arrives in the form of a man ruthlessly imposing “order,” whether it be Anton Chigurh, the fastidious villain of No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007); Daniel Plainview, the oilman of There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007); or the homophobic society of Brokeback Mountain, seeking to maintain the status quo. In these three films the death comes more quietly, accompanied only by two monstrous raps of a bowling pin or the whistle of wind over the plain. But it is undeniably a part of all the violence that has preceded it, that has attempted to “civilize” the West not with institutions but with greed and guns. It is, as the sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones laments near the end of No Country for Old Men, a “dismal tide.” What the new Westerns do, then — what all great art about the American Dream has done, from Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer to Edward Hopper’s paintings of urban anomie — is suggest where the wrong turns have been taken, and question the maintenance of that status quo to the detriment of the ideals we have always sought. I was reminded, watching these films’ fatal, tragic ends, their dismal tides of violence finally washing to shore, of what may be the most indelible image of American failure. It comes near the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the line seems to explain what the new Westerns are getting at in these troubled times of our own, when the direction we once had has been lost and violence bubbles up from within. “It was after we started with [Gatsby’s corpse] toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass,” Fitzgerald writes, with the finality of a bullet to the chest. “And the holocaust was complete.”