The phrase “Actually, [insert movie here] is a Western” has become a bit of an internet punch line since Logan director James Mangold insisted to anyone who would listen that his Wolverine swan song was indebted to epics like Shane—which is sort of obvious, since the characters in the film literally sit around watching Shane. I’ll buy that Logan, which was shot in the desert and has a scene set in a farmhouse, is “actually a Western” sooner than Mangold’s subsequent claim that what he’d really made was an “Ozu film with mutants” (although if that quote got younger Marvel fans to seek out Tokyo Story, it’s all good).
I’m also pretty sure that the new Star Wars prequel Solo is actually a Western, as coscreenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has directed two Westerns (Silverado and Wyatt Earp) and knows the genre as well as anybody. If he says that’s what he was going for, who are we to argue? But there’s a clear and present danger here: Any and all new releases looking for cinephile credibility will be likened to Westerns. Is Ocean’s 8 actually a Western? Is Hereditary actually a Western? Is Damsel actually a Western? (Scratch that, it is.) With this in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a list of some actual “actually, it’s a Western” candidates, all of which are—as usual—available for streaming right now.
Assault on Precinct 13 (Showtime)
The first draft of the screenplay for Assault on Precinct 13 was credited to one “John T. Chance”—a pseudonym chosen by writer-director John Carpenter for reasons that ran far deeper than his initials. As a film student at USC, Carpenter had displayed his love for Westerns by writing the charming 23-minute short The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, about a modern city mouse who dreams of life on the old frontier. A few years later, he adopted the moniker of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo to honor a genre that had spent the early part of the 1970s on a decline. It’s become commonplace to call Assault a remake of Rio Bravo, which isn’t quite right. It’s more accurate to say that Carpenter’s thriller takes the climax of Howard Hawks’s classic and extends it for the duration of an entire movie. In Rio Bravo, there’s an hour of laconic drawling and knockabout clowning (and a Ricky Nelson musical number) before Sheriff Chance and his men retreat to the local jail to fend off a siege by a band of cutthroat outlaws. Carpenter’s version wastes no time shifting the action to a decommissioned South L.A. police station, where Austin Stoker’s Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (his first name is another Duke nod, to The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards) has to rely on a skeleton crew to repel a vicious crew of gangbangers. The biggest difference between the two films is that where Hawks focuses on the affection and camaraderie between his holed-up heroes—especially the frayed relationship between sturdy Sheriff Chance and his shaky deputy, Dude (Dean Martin)—Carpenter keeps his characters and dialogue strictly functional; he doesn’t let us get attached, and it’s just as well, because the filmmaking is too ruthless to permit much in the way of emotion. (The silencers favored by the bad guys are like a symbol of Carpenter’s viciously minimalist M.O.)
Shot on a shoestring and packed with brutal, unrepentant violence—including a scene of child murder so gratuitous that the MPAA threatened the distributor with an X-rating—Assault on Precinct 13 was reviled upon its release as exploitative trash and then reevaluated after the massive success of Halloween. Forty-two years later, it stands as perhaps the starkest illustration of its creator’s gifts for staging and sustaining on-screen carnage.
Blood Simple (FilmStruck)
The Coen brothers’ next release is the Netflix original series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part saga shot in the Nebraska Panhandle and New Mexico. The titular character is a singing cowboy played by Tim Blake Nelson. With No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and Alden Ehrenreich’s character in Hail, Caesar! (another singing cowboy), Joel and Ethan have frequently mined Western tropes and iconography. You can trace this fascination back further, to the tumbling tumbleweed that opens The Big Lebowski, or go straight to their 1984 debut, Blood Simple.
Right out of the gate, the Coens could create instantly iconic characters, and M. Emmet Walsh’s villainous private detective Visser is like a walking sight gag: In a sun-baked Texan thriller, the baddest guy around is the one wearing the (off-) white 10-gallon hat. In plot terms, the Coens’ debut is a ’40s-style neo-noir in modern dress, filled with duplicity and double-crosses, symbolized by whirling ceiling fans that seem to be circulating bad vibes between the people onscreen. But the neon-cowboy kitsch of the bar owned by vengeful cuckolded Marty (Dan Hedaya) and the long horizon lines of the surrounding landscapes outside nod to a different lineage—and so does Walsh’s performance, which luxuriates in the kind of scumbag-outlaw arrogance that Sam Peckinpah perfected in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Visser is a study in greed and grift who delights in pitting his victims against each other, and he’s the only one of the Coens’ monsters who doesn’t have a dogged cop on his trail. Where both Fargo and No Country For Old Men were styled as meditations on good versus evil (with good represented by the cops played by Frances McDormand and Tommy Lee Jones), Blood Simple is a film without heroes: Its West is truly wild.
Certain Women (Showtime)
Kelly Reichardt is the reigning regionalist of American cinema: Since Old Joy, she’s mapped the physical and psychological geography of the Pacific Northwest with a mixture of visual and thematic precision and a curiosity steeped in local culture and customs. The only pure Western that Reichardt has made is 2010’s excellent Meek’s Cutoff, which returns to the primal scene of the Oregon trail to meditate on manifest destiny; its woebegone wagon trainers are lost in America before it’s been fully discovered. That film’s allusions to classic Westerns are myriad, but Reichardt’s other movies with Michelle Williams can also stake a claim. The drifter-comes-to-town setup of Wendy and Lucy and the rural-urban dichotomy of Certain Women both trade smartly on genre tropes.
The latter is a triptych involving three female characters trapped in differently retrograde roles; the final episode concerns a lonely Native American ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who becomes infatuated with a night-school instructor (Kristen Stewart) and strikes up a friendship riven with unrequited love. In the film’s most beautiful and suggestive sequence, Gladstone surprises Stewart with a night-time horseback ride that brings old-fashioned chivalry into the present tense while also flipping around the scenario’s masculine imagery and ideology until it signifies something 180 degrees from its source material. It’s absurd and gorgeous and deeply melancholy.
Sold to U.S. audiences as the first “ramen Western”—i.e., as a more exotic variation on the “Spaghetti Westerns” churned out in Italy in the 1960s—Juzo Itami’s 1987 film is consistently playful as it riffs on pop-cultural cliché´s East and West. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is a Clint Eastwood–style wanderer, bent not on violence nor vengeance but the search for a perfect noodle restaurant. In the opening scene, he and his similarly terse sidekick, Gan (Ken Watanabe), descend on a dilapidated ramen joint and decide to help its owner, the widowed Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), elevate her menu by any means necessary. Goro’s initial verdict that Tampopo’s noodles are “sincere but lack character” is a tough-guy koan worthy of Leone, but Itami isn’t interested in machismo. Tampopo’s gentle self-sufficiency and innovation are the true signifiers of heroism, while the film’s (lovable) villain is a flamboyant Japanese gangster whose Yakuza-style arrogance is roundly mocked.
Itami uses the basic building blocks of the Western—namely the tough outsider trying to protect a fragile outpost of civilization—as the foundation for an episodic, borderline experimental comedy that considers various kinds of pleasure (communal, artistic, gastronomical, sexual) and arrives at the conclusion that all are worthwhile and worth pursuing. It’s all completely sweet natured, staged with a detached, deadpan mastery that owes debts to a different tradition (many critics invoked the comedies of the French master Jacques Tati), and yet plays as wildly original.
Taxi Driver (Hulu)
It’s been said many times that Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver was written under the sign of The Searchers, the canonical 1956 John Ford Western about a man questing to rescue his kidnapped niece from a band of Comanche. Schrader reimagined John Wayne’s pained, alienated Civil War vet Ethan Edwards as the disturbed ex-Marine Travis Bickle and Natalie Wood’s Debbie as teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). By transferring the harsh, obsessive psychology of Ford’s classic to an urban context, he and director Martin Scorsese simultaneously honored film history while rewriting it with their own signature. At this point, I don’t need to go through what’s classic and enduring about Taxi Driver (which has itself been reworked twice already this year, in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Schrader’s own First Reformed), but I’ve always found it fascinating how Schrader reversed the terms of Ford’s ending.
The final, devastating point of The Searchers is that Ethan’s heroism is laced with a cruelty incompatible with the extended family he’s ostensibly helping. He carries Debbie home, but he can’t go inside (resulting in one of the most famous, visually eloquent final shots of all time). In Taxi Driver, Travis proves his devotion to Iris by shooting up the apartment of her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), a crazed gesture that turns him not into a pariah but a media star. Where Ford’s masterpiece tried to separate its deeply flawed hero from a civilization that simultaneously required and abhorred his presence, Scorsese and Schrader hinted at the chilling compatibility between Travis’s narcissistic savior complex and a celebrity culture fascinated by freak-of-the-week types.