The Western is a genre that frequently goes in and out of fashion and it is often impossible to predict when one comes out how well it will do at the box office. Three films from recent years that exemplify this are: Open Range, directed by and staring Kevin Costner. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by and staring Tommy Lee Jones. And Appaloosa directed by and staring Ed Harris. Films made by as well as staring movie stars. Of the three Costner is the best known as a director and probably the most closely associated with the genre but all are good films that didn’t do that well commercially.
Kevin Costner turned down Kill Bill in order to make Open Range. Based on Lauran Paine’s novel the story centres on the disputes between small farmers and wealthy cattle barons in 1880s Montana. The free-range men who believe in free and open grazing of cattle are represented here by a small group lead by Robert Duvall and including Kevin Costner. The “barbed wire men” want to divide up the land for their own gain and prevent free grazing. The main one of these is ruthless land baron Denton Baxter played by Michael Gambon. The underlying themes of the movie is freedom and change. How can Duvall’s character Boss Spearman maintain his way of life in s world he can see changing around him? This is very reminiscent of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves who expressed a wish to see the frontier before it’s gone. This a film set at the time when the world was experiencing the “Second Industrial Revolution” and was rapidly changing. With its industrial towns in the northeast America was at the forefront of world following a period of growth after the civil war. Culturally the country is moving back towards Europe and away from its pioneering roots, this is seen as a bad thing and the audience is left in no doubt that the open range cowboys are good and the ranchers are tyrants. And on top of all this there some fantastic action set pieces involving shootouts that any director of westerns would be proud of.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
A modern day western about a Mexican illegal immigrant who is shot and killed by a border patrolman before being berried in an unmarked shallow grave in Texas (A lot of the movie was shot on Tommy Lee Jones’s own ranch). His body is found and moved to a local cemetery until his friend Pete Perkins (Jones) forces his killer to dig the body up and accompany them across the border into Mexico so he can fulfil a promise to burry him in his home town of Jimenez. The film deals with many themes and issues most notably alienation and redemption as well as relationships between people. The film is a little off-beat, enigmatic and a little sad a bit like the characters in it. Look out for a great performance by January Jones in a small role as Lou Ann Norton the border Patrolman’s wife. But this isn’t a film about grandstanding performances, this film is about all the characters and how they interact. All the people feel like real people not two dimensional characters that are only there for the benefit of that section of the plot. None of the characters are stereotypes of good and evil, they are just people with flaws just like everyone in the real world. This gives the film a gritty reality that is added to by the fantastic ambiguous ending. The screenplay is by Guillermo Arriaga who is also responsible for Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel as well as several novels. He wrote it in his native Spanish and it was translated into English by Tommy Lee Jones who also directed and produced the film.
When two gunmen drift into a small western town you know they are going to be from one extreme or the other. They will either terrorise the town or save it from someone who is already terrorizing it. In this case the men in question are Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and they are here to save the town from evil murdering rancher Randall Bragg played by a fantastic Jeremy Irons. Things are complicated further by the arrival of Allison French (Renée Zellweger) a woman who seems to gravitate towards powerful men. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Robert B. Parker (his son Daniel T. Parker has a small part in the film as Mueller) and was directed by Ed Harris. The film is very old fashioned in its style having more in common with John Ford and Howard Hawks than the westerns of the past twenty years. This makes it a delight for western fans but probably explains the week box-office returns. What works really well is the relationship between the two main characters, they have known each other for years and they talk to each other in that way. There is no week dialogue used to inform the audience of the back story, it just comes out naturally throughout the film. It is almost like they are characters on a TV show that people have been watching for years and know all about. It is also great to see Lance Henriksen get such a good if low-key part as Ring Shelton a gunman who has some history with Harris’s character. Directed with a light hand the film has some amusing moments; this is a film to sit back enjoy and savour as they don’t make many like this any longer.