Over and over again, we hear about the demise of the western, about how it is an outdated and archaic cinematic form: and then a western pops up and, all of a sudden, it’s been “revived.”
Fact is, it’s never gone away, and there have been some cracking examples over the last few years. I particularly liked The Proposition, still a western because of its theme of frontier conflict between corrupt authority and equally corrupt anarchy, but genre-bending in the sense it is set in Australia. There have been plenty of more traditional examples, such as the disappointing 3:10 to Yuma and the underrated Appaloosa. Then there are those that are updated, such as the stunningly nihilistic The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, or the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. And then, of course, the genre has been spun into the future, with another Cormac McCarthy tale, The Road, and the sublimely cool Serenity.
But there have been two cast iron classics recently. One was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just a gorgeous and – okay, it’s a cliché – elegiac telling of the end of the wild west hero/villain: and now this, another Coen brothers masterpiece.
There is so much that convinces about this film. The performances are superb: Jeff Bridges hasn’t been so charismatically grizzled since The Big Lebowski, Matt Damon has never been so convincingly gauche. Josh Brolin excels in the tiny part of the seriously mentally subnormal villain, Tom Chaney, the unlikeliest assassin of a US senator you could ever imagine. Hailee Steinfeld is perfect as Mattie Ross; hopefully, unlike the original’s Kim Darby, she will do a Natalie Portman or Jodie Foster, and get the chance to develop as a real talent in further roles.
Then there’s the landscape, of course, the whirling snow flurries and the denuded woods and the desert edges all filmed so perfectly. But the shining feature is the script, lovingly recreated from the source novel by Charles Portis. I’ve rarely heard more erudite dialogue, certainly never in a western. All the characters – even Chaney – speak with an elegant formality that just smacks of truth. There is none of the spitting spaghetti western here (though God knows there’s nothing wrong with that), but rather the haughty bearing of the Victorian age transposed across the Atlantic. They speak in sentences, not grunts, and there is hardly a contraction in the whole text. Take these simple, beautiful lines, spoken by Chaney as he is abandoned by his gang with Mattie:
“Chaney: They will not wait for me at The Old Place. Lucky Ned has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.
Mattie: He is sending a mount.
Chaney: That was a story. Keep still now. I must think over my position and how I may improve it.”
Mannered, delicious words. It’s a dream of a script. I’ve downloaded it and am treasuring reading it and learning from it. Utterly magnificent.