Looking at two very different Westerns from 2015, I re-evaluate the genre itself and how it’s still alive, kicking and relevant in this day and age.
With its gun-slinging, its sweeping shots of deserts and its mumbling Byronic figures, the Western might nowadays be seen as an irrelevant art form, separate from the modern world, a detached genre rolling around in the dust. But the Western remains important today, and is reinventing itself, and a couple of films released in 2015 have shown that in style.
Slow West, the beautiful, tragic and well-observed tale of loyalty, love and redemption in Midwest America, and Mad Max: Fury Road, the all-out post-apocalyptic chase film starring Tom Hardy, both exemplify what has changed about the Western (and what has, crucially, stayed the same) – and why it matters.
The former is an indisputably traditional Western. It’s set at the end of the 19th century, and the story tells of 16 year-old Scot Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has travelled to America to find his long-lost love, and who runs into silent, brooding outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender). The outlaw agrees to lead the traveller to his love, for a fee. Camaraderie and tragedy ensue. Mad Max, though, beyond being designated by its director George Miller as a Western, is perhaps harder to view as one. However, its core DNA is the same – silence, fighting, yearning and death. A little into the future a nuclear apocalypse has left the earth a barren desert wasteland, and the brooding figure of Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky (yes, that is his surname) wanders by chance upon a group of women, led by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, who are struggling to escape a tyrannical leader. So begins a colossal, movie-long chase through the desert. Max himself rarely speaks, and ironically for a film bearing his name, you know him no better at the end of the film than you did at the start.
Settings aside, both films are tales of desperate people, desperate times and desperate measures. Morals go haywire as people scrabble for survival, and killing becomes de rigueur, a return to primeval ways. True heroes don’t exist, only those who have the mantle thrown at their feet and assume it because they must. As a snapshot of life in its purest, most vital form, you need go no further than the Western. And indeed, there is perhaps no other genre that encompasses all of humanity – courage, life, love, regret, death – in one shot, as the Western does.
Certainly Slow West is adept at illustrating, in powerful, languid strokes, the struggle of people at the time. Judging individuals by the same standard was impossible, as death (read: murder) was so commonplace and survival was the one thread which linked everyone. But what both Slow West and Mad Max are brilliant at showing is that the idea of the quest is definitely not dead, as people always need something to search for, and maybe it is this which gives life meaning. Indeed, Silas’ remark in Slow West that Jay sees the world in a different way is an important marker of the significance of the Western. There’s nothing like a new environment for giving perspective, and there’s no landscape harsher than that you find in a Western.
Equally, Mad Max: Fury Road, where the future is quite literally both bright and orange, is set in such a desolate world that it seems as though little could survive. Once again the struggle is simply to get through the day, and principles or emotions can go hang. Max himself says ‘Hope is a mistake’, and it does appear that there is nothing left for him and his company to live for. But Max, by the same token, hopes that they can ‘together…come across some kind of redemption.’ And this is equally as important as the search for love in Slow West – in a world without rules, or in one where tyrants can make their own, people must find a way to bring peace and start again.
Though perhaps, with its characters almost belonging to their own separate world devoid of rules, it might seem as though the Western itself is a genre running on borrowed time, running from commercialism or those who view it as dated, away from its own inevitable demise. But the genre, though its make-up essentially remains the same, has shown itself (like the heroes who populate them) to possess remarkable resilience in adapting to the harsh modern landscape of the screen. It sees what is needed, and has evolved accordingly.
Appealing to universal emotions – ‘l’amour, comme la mort’, as Jay says, and to a desire to give life a greater meaning, gives Slow West a greater heft than the simple story of someone wanting to shoot someone else over a personal grievance. Also, the film’s focus on showing all characters, however minor, as equally insignificant in the scheme of things, and equally flawed, is admirable and philosophical. Meanwhile Mad Max goes beyond being a mere chase film and lends its characters real depth. People running scared from tyranny have rarely seemed so relatable, and so grippingly human, especially Nicholas Hoult’s tortured runaway Nux. The trophy wives on the run only want a chance to start again, as does the enigmatic Max himself. And amongst all the stuck-together pieces of a Western – the desolate lands, the tortured hero, the bloodshed – that Mad Max contains, there is some hope of that by the end.
There is something of Solomon Northup’s impassioned ‘I don’t wanna survive, I wanna live’ from 12 Years A Slave in Jay Cavendish’s statement that ‘There’s more to life than just surviving.’ The Western is about finding something else beyond the day-to-day survival in the heat and the dust. We all long for our lives to have a greater meaning, be that through religion, a personal ideal, or simply through people, and the Western, with its long silences and barren landscapes, is the best medium for transmitting this. No other genre is simply man versus the world, and no other shows how people will do just about anything to find happiness, or peace, or simply a moment of silence. It’s a reflection of humanity stripped down to its bare essentials.
At one point during Mad Max: Fury Road, a quote appears, asking ‘Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?’ And there’s only one answer: onwards. So though the genre may trade on the idea of people wandering aimlessly and not knowing their direction, it knows exactly where it’s going. The Western is on the rise again, which is what it’s all about – the great art of resurgence and revival, of reinventing yourself when all hope of survival seems gone. A Western is a tale of the ultimate redemption, one which suggests that something new and something better is possible for everyone, even those at their wits’ end. And it’s a tale which is still being told. So ho for the open road, and drift on. It’s impossible to be certain, but that road might lead someplace good.