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Why the Big Budget Movie Western Is Dead

Academy-Award winner Denzel Washington led the ensemble piece, and Antoine Fuqua (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Equalizer”) called the shots behind the camera.

The film hasn’t scratched $100 million at the domestic box office and likely will fail to do so.

It’s not the first time a studio has taken an A-list star, a successful director and big budget to try and revive a genre that once ruled Hollywood.

There was “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Jonah Hex” and “The Lone Ranger.” All big time failures from big Hollywood names.

RELATED: ‘Magnificent?’ Remake Is Mediocre at Best

While it’s always exciting to see major studios release new oaters, the truth is the big budget movie western is dead. The genre may never hold the sort of popularity it once did. However, that doesn’t mean the genre itself is dead. On the contrary, one could argue westerns have evolved in fascinating ways and might be better than they’ve ever been before.

The future of the movie western lies with independent filmmakers. Their spins on the classic yarns of good and evil, reluctant heroes, justice and revenge matter.

Ti West is the latest to experiment within the genre.

His “In a Valley of Violence,” starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, is the classic tale of the loner just “passing through” a secluded town. Hawke’s character gets far more trouble than he bargained for, as do the loudmouths that decide it might be funny to kill the man’s dog and leave him to die.

It sounds like “John Wick” set in the west, but “Violence” has more in common with other low-budget westerns, like last year’s “Bone Tomahawk.” While “Violence” works with completely conventional tropes, it’s the voice behind the camera that gives them a new, evolved feel.

FAST FACT: “Violence” director Ti West cut his teeth in the horror genre, directing a series of fright films including “The Sacrament” before tackling his first western.

Hawk’s character deals with a great amount of PTSD throughout the film, and his exchanges with Travolta’s Marshal are a wonder to any writer or fan of westerns. West writes his characters with the level of sophistication only a true oater fan would know.

While adding in small doses of tongue in cheek realism, the movie also packs its characters with modern humor and surprises. Funny, dry and bloody as all hell, “Violence” is a fantastic spin on the genre that does far more with its low budget than “Seven” or any other blockbuster ever could.

Perhaps it’s that films like “Seven” simply can’t do anything daring with the movie western. Working within the confines of the big budget studio system prevents them from spinning anything new from tales of six shooters and horses. Without that freedom, we’re simply watching glossy versions of tales we’ve seen a thousand times over.

“In a Valley of Violence,” “Bone Tomahawk” and even Quentin Tarantino’s modestly budgeted westerns display a passion for the genre’s staples without duplicating them. “Tomahawk” played with the genre and its pacing, “Violence” adds humor and fun into all the right places, and Tarantino does exactly what Tarantino always does, making us salivate at his slow burn scenes of one on one exchanges, whether with words or bullets.

Only a man well versed in the genre could push it forward.

There will likely never be a major resurgence of westerns at the studio level. Possibly, every few years will bring us an expensive misfire like “Seven” or “Ranger.” However, true western fans should be looking to the unique voices quietly putting out experimental and daring western stories.

They don’t all get the Tarantino treatment upon delivery. “Valley” is mostly a VOD release, as was “Tomahawk.” They are still more than worth viewers seeking out and supporting.

We may bemoan often how the iconic movie western is dead and buried. It’s still alive, still fermenting and quietly getting better with age.

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3 Comments

  1. Like all things, better of TV. Longmire and Justified were excellent Westerns. And “The Road” (2009) was an awesome Western… all the key elements were there:

    — A small but important battle between good and evil

    — Guns (one gun, two bullets) serve as the mediators of that relationship

    — Horses (now shopping carts) are crucial to survival

    — Crossing a barren environment with dangerous natives (cannibals), all the while holding onto core values (the child)

    — Grand vistas

  2. When Magnificent 7 comes to video/Amazon Prime/Netflix, I will be jumping on it then. I just have no interest in paying to see it in a theater. Don’t want to give money to Hollywood, and don’t enjoy the lack of manners.
    And I thought Cowboys and Aliens was an awesome movie. I was very pleased to spend the money on the DVD.
    It reminds me of the old Saturday/Sunday afternoons, watching a great movie on television or hoofing it to the theater in town. Denzel and Fuqua make a great team, reminds me of Wayne and John Ford or Howard Hawks in their heydays.

  3. I really liked Mag7, but there were a few things that irked me about it.

    A, the darkened and dulled-out color palate. Remember when Westerns were BEAUTIFUL to look at? Nowadays, oaters either seem smothered in shadow and days that look like early evenings a la “Unforgiven”, or all bleached out (see “The Lone Ranger”).

    B, James Horner’s last score ever, while beautiful, just wasn’t that, well, “hum-able”. The use of Elmer Bernstein’s classic theme in the end just highlighted the issue: Whatever happened to the Western themes that stick with us, so that we’re humming them as we leave the theater? Granted, Horner’s theme is a VAST improvement over so many oaters lately…where the music seems barely there at ALL!

    C, the trailers with the whole “rock and roll” sound and pacing. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself…except when that’s not what we’re looking for.

    In sort, far too often it felt more “action flick set in the West” than “true-blue Western”. And THAT, I think, is the problem. Modern oaters are just standard action flicks or dramas IN the West. Nothing to set them apart, like the classics. They don’t FEEL like Westerns. And THAT, I feel, is the problem. If studios want big-budget Westerns to make money…they actually have to deliver the goods.

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