Directed by: David Mackenzie [HHW], Taylor Sheridan [WR], Jeremy Saulnier [HD] || Produced by: Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn [HHW], Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk [WR], Russell Ackerman, Eva Maria Daniels, Neil Kopp [HD]
Screenplay by: Taylor Sheridan [HHW, WR], Macon Blair [HD] || Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham [HHW], Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene [WR], Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough [HD]
Music by: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis [HHW, WR], Brooke Blair, Will Blair [HD] || Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens [HHW], Ben Richardson [WR], Magnus Nordenhof Jonck [HD] || Edited by: Jake Roberts [HHW], Gary D. Roach [WR], Julia Bloch [HD] || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 102 [HHW], 107 [WR], and 125 [HD] minutes
The American frontier, or the expansion of European colonies into the New World, has left an indelible mark on not just American (US) culture or the American continents, but on the world as a whole. The most consistent medium through which the survivalist mindset of the American frontier spread to the rest of the world was the medium of film, specifically the Western genre. Whether you’ve seen Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) subway gunslinger-showdown with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in The Matrix (1999) or enjoyed Akira Kurosawa’s expansive samurai epics (e.g. Seven Samurai , Yojimbo ) or followed the dynamic careers of actor-writer-directors Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino, you can’t understand film history without studying the Western, and the Western as an audiovisual narrative formula would not exist without America’s frontier history.
I noted in my analysis of modern film genres, however, that the Western as a popular mainstream storytelling device unto itself has declined in recent decades. Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1994) is perhaps the last great, influential Western produced by Hollywood, with many of the genre’s tropes, character archetypes, and period settings being perceived as dated in a negative, as opposed to romantic sense by today’s audiences. The cinematographic influences of the Western are part of filmmaking’s DNA and aren’t going anywhere, but the genre itself may have at last died out as the world in general and America in particular grow further apart in time and space from the genre’s original “source material.”
The closest modern descendant of the traditional or historical Western is the neo-Western, much how neo-Noir films — both in science-fiction and action narratives — modernized the dark, brooding archetypes and ominous, low-key lighting of the 1940s California private eye. Films like No Country for Old Men (2007), Sicario (2015, 2018), Logan (2017), and even the television series Breaking Bad (2008-2013) flaunt the unmistakable anti-hero leads, arid landscapes, and rebellious themes of classic Western storytelling, but set against a modern setting.
Prolific actor, writer, and now director, Taylor Sheridan, has established himself as an artist of the contemporary Western. Having spent most of his life as an actor, he claims “an allergic reaction” to exposition in films, and enjoys breaking traditional screenwriting rules with deliberation and intent. His second film after his screenwriting debut, Sicario (a Denis Villenueve favorite of mine), was the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated Hell or High Water, a picture who’s genius seems to have flown over my head.
Hell or High Water (henceforth, HHW) was all the rage around 2016 and was lauded as the spiritual successor to the likes of No Country for Old Men, yet I can’t for the life of me understand why. To me, HHW represents the worst of modern Westerns to the extent that it feels as dated and faux-“edgy” as the classical Westerns of the 1940-50s, as well as the Italian spaghetti-Westerns of the 1960s. My disappointment with HHW stems not so much with its throwback premise or reliable story structure (the movie follows two brothers, Ben Foster and Chris Pine, who rob a series of banks threatening to foreclose their home), but rather its baffling execution from Scottish director, David Mackenzie.
I don’t know if Mackenzie’s cultural estrangement from the modern or historical American frontier made him a bad match for Sheridan’s script, but I see no better source of blame for HHW’s weird acting, odd casting decisions, and unbelievable action sequences. Ben Foster may look like a character-actor, but he’s a terrible one (see also, 30 Days of Night ) despite being not half bad as a lead actor, or “straight-man” (e.g. Pandorum ). His cackling, mannerisms, and comical redneck accent are as bad as Emily Blunt’s in Looper (2012), though to the casting director’s credit, he at least looks the part of a working-class ex-con, unlike Chris Pine, who looks like he walked out of a J. C. Penny catalog before someone slapped a country mustache on him. HHW’s two leads are so miscast I had a hard time connecting with the rest of the film, though Mackenzie’s lackluster action cinematography and haphazard use of an equally bad supporting cast don’t help. The only subplot in the entire film that works is the buddy-cop relationship between Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, which would have made a far stronger movie on its lonesome.
Wind River (WR), Sheridan’s directorial debut, was a big step back in the right direction for Sheridan after the staggeringly overrated HHW; Sheridan is no David S. Goyer (Blade Trinity , anyone?), and has better command of his written material than Mackenzie ever did. Though some of his dialogue scenes ironically sport too much exposition, as well as feature handheld camerawork for no reason, his overall directing effort is powerful, with great on-location photography, great tension building before action sequences, and a creative whodunit mystery concerning the disappearance of Native American women.
Jeremy Renner’s lead feels a bit out of place in the Wyoming Wind River Indian Reservation, and in hindsight the film’s structure may have worked better with Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI special agent being the long white person/outsider in the Native American community. However, Renner’s working-class, US Fish and Wildlife persona are more convincing in this Western backdrop than Foster and Pine ever were in HHW, and his chemistry with Olsen and supporting actor, Graham Green, is terrific.
Somewhere in between the lackluster execution of HHW and Sheridan’s inconsistent yet strong directorial debut in WR is Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature, Hold the Dark. Saulnier is a different breed of filmmaker than Sheridan, aligning closer to Nicolas Winding Refn’s atmospheric, surrealist brooding than Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Westerns. Still, Hold the Dark’s unabashed frontier backdrop (northern Alaska) and jaw-dropping display of frontier justice are as Western as anything made by James Mangold. The film sees Saulnier step away from the repetitive, if captivating grindhouse fare of Blue Ruin (2013) and Green Room (2015) towards more dramatic, if equally violent material about culture clash and frontier aesthetics.
Hold the Dark’s major problems are how its story progression and certain major character motivations are confusing as fuck. In trading his previous two film’s structural simplicity for a vaguer, atmospheric contemplation on familial legacy, Hold the Dark meanders between casual ultraviolence and existentialist brooding. It feels like a short-story version of True Detective (2014) set in Alaska instead of Louisiana, and while it boasts directorial mastery of ominous lighting, interesting characters, and a light-machine gun shootout that’ll knock your teeth in, its pretentious dialogue, lofty monologues, and slow-pacing are a far cry from Rust Cohle’s nihilistic diatribes.
In addition to showcasing the remnants of the untamed New World wilderness, all three of these movies span the diverse tonal and thematic range of the contemporary Western. Hell or High Water is a flawed rendering of old-school frontier rebellion, while Wind River is an intriguing murder-mystery juxtaposing modern indigenous poverty against European-American indifference, and Hold the Dark is a more personal examination of the family ties that bind us no matter how remote we may feel from modern civilization. It’s an odd collection of movies to discuss, yet watching them back-to-back-to-back feels like a cinematic three-course meal that broadens your appreciations of the strengths and weaknesses of each project. I’d only recommend one out of the three wholeheartedly, but each film is a charming reminder of the enduring power of the original American Western.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: David Mackenzie, Taylor Sheridan, and Jeremy Saulnier bring us three separate yet comparable flavors of the modern American “frontier,” from Texas heat to Alaskan cold, demonstrating how gunslingers, desolate landscapes, and sectarian violence still capture our cinematic imagination no matter how postmodern we may feel. However, quality varies between each feature, such that…
—> …. Hell or High Water is NOT RECOMMENDED as a function of its mediocre direction and bad lead actors; Wind River is RECOMMENDED given its superior blending of mystery and Western tropes; finally, I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Hold the Dark, given its powerful action direction and memorable tone, along with its obtuse dialogue and snail’s pace.
? Ben Foster is like an inverse Jai Courtney. The former looks like a character-actor while being a decent lead, while the latter is a halfway decent character-actor despite looking like the dictionary-definition of a movie-star.