Western is the genre with the most rules. The strictest interpretation of those rules states that westerns need to be set in America and they need to have certain elements within them like Indians, cattle rustlers, horses, big hats, a drunk sheriff or doctor, and a stoic hero. They also tend more towards action movies and character studies. Unlike comedy or horror, where the rules and settings are more fluid, western is supposedly locked into certain spaces and ideas. But that is not always the case. To prove it, here are five westerns that break the rules.
Bone Tomahawk is like if The Searchers was set in the same stretch of desert as The Hills Have Eyes. It spends a majority of its run time following the standard western trope of Indians stealing some townsfolk and a posse going after them, until the last act when the horror starts. It is gruesome, violent, and full of tight, tense moments. The western genre lends itself easily to horror as these are movies set in the middle of nowhere full of unscrupulous people in a land they don’t quite understand. Bone Tomahawk ratchets that tension up, establishing the vast harshness of the land before revealing its much harsher antagonists.
2015’s Bone Tomahawk came to my attention due to everyone on Twitter talking about a particular scene in it. Actually, it was more they talked around it. Everyone referred to THAT scene but didn’t give any details, and I won’t here. You’ll need to watch it yourself, and don’t worry, you’ll know the scene when it happens.
The Good, the Bad and the Weird
The Good, the Bad and the Weird differentiates itself from the standard western by setting and tone. Set in Manchuria in 1939, the movie follows the plotline on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but with more outrageous stunts, slapstick, and humour. The changed setting removes the original’s Civil War influenced plotline and replaces it with the machinations of the occupied Chinese, the Imperial Japanese army, three Korean gunslingers, and varied other collaborators, gangsters, and idiots.
The final package is a live action cartoon full of crazy stunts, prolonged action sequences, and mugging by my favourite Korean actor, Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer), while also retaining the spirit and look of a traditional made-in-America western.
Ravenous is a hard movie. Plagued with production nightmares mostly caused by a micro-managing studio and eventually being helmed by three successive directors, it is a movie that should not work and parts of it don’t. Edited by the studio, there are some odd elements that have no place in the movie like the jarring opening quotes and credits and the misplaced narration. However, around these faults is a gem of a movie. Caked in dirt and blood, this is a movie with texture that you can feel under your nails when the movie is over.
It is a western about cowardice, loneliness, and cannibalism. Robert Carlyle’s turn as the lost man who may not be what he seems is a glorious horror movie performance and the soundtrack by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman is that unique sweet spot between incredibly catchy and grating. Ravenous is an incredible cult movie that deserves to be seen by all horror fans.
I’m a big fan of revisionist westerns – the ones that actually address what life in the West would have been like and the toll of killing people and living a life constantly on the edge of violent death. The Proposition is that but set in Australia during the early 1880s. It is a harsh country full of hard people, and the movie doesn’t flinch away from its depictions of the rampant crime and the shitiness of the occupying British. Written by Nick Cave, the movie is lyrically violent with fantastic performances from Guy Pearce (who’s also in Ravenous), Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Emily Watson, and Danny Huston, among others.
The movie has also been praised for its accuracy in its depiction of Indigenous culture of the time, with the filmmakers taking great pains to follow the advice of Indigenous advisors on set, something oft overlooked in these kinds of movies.
Serenity is a classic western right down to the fact that it’s set after a civil war. It’s not the Civil War, but it suits for the purposes of creating a world in which outlaws and bandits roam the plains taking jobs and trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Also, all this happens in space.
Joss Whedon’s space western works as well as it does because Whedon doesn’t just make everyone dress like cowboys and then put them on a spaceship. No, he goes full western right down to the dialogue, the plots, and the hero, Mal Reynolds, an outlaw with a shady past and a quick trigger finger. Reynolds’ rag tag crew try to escape the law and, best of all, the Reavers, a savage band representing the way Native Americans are depicted in the earliest westerns as essentially monsters that roamed the plains looking to kill good, honest white folk. Whedon manages to use this trope and subvert it by having the savage Reavers first as bloodthirsty monsters before revealing their origin story that repositions them as victims of circumstance and meddling by an invading culture.
In a perfect world, we would have 10 seasons of Firefly or a big damn trilogy of movies, but the fact that we have what we have will have to do.
Are there any movies we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below or come meet me at the saloon at sundown and we can settle this up once and for all.
Featured Image: First Look Pictures