While it might not be the box office mainstay it once was, the genre is experiencing a renaissance, something thats telling of the state of America in 2016
Ominous music, reminiscent of a horror movie, plays while a stranded priest waits alone in a dusty landscape. A lone horseman rides up, a scene out of a classic western. But the priest is a drunk and a thief who tries robbing his savior; the hero is actually a killer, though not, he insists while taking the priests bullets and water, a thief. Cue the credit sequence, a full-blown homage to the spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars.
In the Valley of Violence, directed by Ti West, packs a lot into its opening moments. It also speaks to the state of westerns today. Despite occasional rumors of its demise and two decades where memorable entries were the exception the western is now surprisingly vibrant, thanks to a flexibility that allows movies and TV series to celebrate the genres traditions, deconstruct its conventions or do both.
The western has always been the American epic, says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse Universitys Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture. Its exciting and violent and huge. We dont have a single text like The Iliad or The Odyssey but the western is our story.
Westerns never died off but few were made from 1980 to 2003. They returned with a vengeance after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. It was a time that sent people into shock and America was longing for a way to figure out what went wrong, who we are, what are values are and where we go in future, says Richard Aquila, author of Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture.
The story and the archetypes in westerns may be simple, but that allows you to use subtext to tie things in to what is happening now, says West, whose previous credits were mainly within the horror genre. The townsfolk in his movie have become violent and desperate since the mine closed and jobs vanished, which he compares to modern Detroit.
Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay for this years revelatory modern western, Hell or High Water, wanted to meld the heist, buddy and road movies into the western and then turn all the genres on their ear.
His film, the years highest-grossing indie, stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers robbing the banks that seduced their late mother into a predatory loan, and Jeff Bridges as the ageing Texas Ranger who hunts them. Bridges was drawn to it by the moral ambiguities of all the characters and the story.
The movie has us re-examining the self-evident truths of America, Thompson says, tackling subjects like povertys multi-generational stranglehold, the lingering impact of domestic violence; casual racism and even the pros and cons of a state loaded with guns. But it does so amid a landscape of bank robberies and getaway cars, stakeouts and shootouts.
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