A newly-widowed woman must defend her late husband's property from a railroad baron.
Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson
Review by Jon Kissel
In Sergio Leone’s final film set in the American West, he immediately communicates something vital to the setting and to the genre. In the first scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, a trio of goons terrorize a ticket taker and stuff him in a closet while they wait for their prey. The frontier exists in America as this romantic place where society can be reinvented and started anew by anyone with the foresight and will to make their way, but some rules and customs exist for a reason, like the free exchange of goods and services or the entering into a personal transaction with good faith. If everyone in an unsettled environment is remaking the world based on strength of will, the will to dominate will win out. Our introductory goons, in service to another goon who himself is in service to a robber baron railroad tycoon, are imbued with the power to do whatever they want. If they wanted to kill the ticket taker, no one would stop them and no one would pursue them. Once Upon a Time in the West ultimately tells a happy story of the forces of domination being thwarted and the promise of the frontier being fulfilled, but it comes within a pervasive package of corruption that implies this outcome is a rare one.
For Joel and Ethan Coen, some things, like scenes that don’t seem to fit in a movie’s structure or unreliable fantasy sequences of indeterminate meaning, are expected. That makes it all the more noticeable when they leave all that stuff out. True Grit contains no Mike Yanagita sidebar, nor an eerie stagecoach ride towards what may or may not be the afterlife, but it’s still unmistakably a Coen Brothers film, and their highest-grossing one to boot. Persistently versatile and effective across genres and time periods, the Coen’s include all the hallmarks of the Western, with cowboys and Indians and outlaws and grand vistas, but they can’t help but put their pet themes of cosmic scales of justice onto a recognizable framework. The result is a thing that works, an actor’s showcase and a joyful adventure, a reminder of why Westerns have persisted for so long and a modern rejoinder to the kinds of films the Western archetype John Wayne, star of the original as this is a remake, used to churn out. True Grit is evidence that the Coen’s can be purely entertaining whenever they want to, one more gift for a pair that can do no wrong.
I picture Joel and Ethan Coen writing their scripts in their office and laughing at each other about how their films will be interpreted. Maybe they think about all the ink that will be spilled by critics and film journalists wondering why the Mike Yanagita scene is in Fargo or what the true role of John Goodman is in Barton Fink, and chuckle that they don’t actually put these mysteries in their films for any purpose other than the mystery itself. Much like several of their films, there is actually no meaning to be discerned. The Coens love coincidence with no rationale behind it and the capriciousness of an impassive and unknowable prime mover, themes that film writers aren’t big fans of because there isn’t much to write about when that is the case. The reviewer looking for answers asks ‘why did that happen’ and the Coens reply ‘why ask why?’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears to be exactly as cosmically retributive as much of the Coens’ earlier work, with that prime mover watching from above and snatching goodness away from the characters’ grasps. Though each of the six stories feature bloody ends, this is actually something of an outlier for the duo, in that it’s obliquely beautiful in its own specific way. Joel and Ethan remain as fatalistic as ever, but nothing is so simple as the point A of birth and the point B of death. There are songs to sung and moments to be shared along the way.
Classic production code films are always hard to evaluate. It’s possible the viewer has seen dozens of iterations and imitators without knowing it, robbing the classic of any originality it would’ve had at its premiere. The workarounds required by morality censors give writers and directors hurdles that don’t improve their films thanks to an extra degree of difficulty. These kinds of films have a cadence all their own, a stilted way of speaking that can be hard to ignore. Subtlety seems to be a thing that doesn’t get introduced to American cinema til the incorporation of Italian neo-realism and the looming French New Wave. I don’t feel like I’m too far out on a limb when I say that Hollywood film was an art form with plenty of room to run in the early 50’s. The film that gets me thinking about mid-century movies is High Noon, the Western as anti-McCarthy parable. It has all the aforementioned crutches that keep it from my rating it as a great film, though I can admire it as something with a perspective and a legacy.
Kevin Costner’s Western Dances With Wolves is a film we’re watching because of its culture clash narrative, but it could’ve fit into a category that was raised on a recent podcast: films that need a reevaluation. The film nerd expectation on this one is tied in with its Best Picture win over the vastly-superior Goodfellas, another example of Oscar voters going for safe over daring or challenging. It’s also got a decidedly non-PC reputation as a white savior, noble savage exemplar. However, where we mentioned on the podcast a movie like 300 getting a downward reevaluation, Dances With Wolves conceivably deserves one in the opposite direction. As far as white saviors go, John Dunbar is nowhere near the most egregious example, and it’s never the winning film’s fault when a more deserving film is passed over for awards. Much of Dances With Wolves is just as moving and enthralling as it was before I knew a movie like Goodfellas existed. It’s hardly perfect, but Costner’s epic is undeserving of the turned-up nose in its direction.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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