A few days ago I got the new western Jane Got a Gun from Netflix. One of my movie watching buddies had expressed an interest in seeing it, but I pulled the ultimate selfish dick move and watched it by myself as soon as I got it. (I'm well aware that many relationships have ended over this exact behavior, but unfortunately for my friend I'm a loner, Dottie... A rebel.)
After the movie was back in the mail I copped to what I had done. My friend shrugged and then asked the obvious follow up question: would I recommend it, or had I just saved her ninety minutes?
The answer: a little from column a and a little from column b. Jane Got a Gun is remarkably competent for a film with such a troubled production history and Nathalie Portman is predictably solid as Jane... But honestly the movie as a whole is pretty ho-hum.
I kind of hemmed and hawed over her question but at the end of the day I decided that I couldn't really recommend Jane Got a Gun (even though it's perfectly fine) because I can think of several other recent movies that are doing the same thing but better. If you want to watch a bloody gun slinging Western there's no reason to settle for that mediocrity.
I then started telling her about some other movies I would recommend over Jane Got a Gun, but I quickly realized that a) my friend probably didn't care that much about the sub genre of recent star studded Indie budgeted revisionist Westerns so I probably didn't need to be blowing up her phone with a cross-comparison of all of them and B) I actually had a space reserved for my ramblings about such topics...
So without further ado here's my rundown of the extremely narrow genre of "star studded Indie budgeted revisionist Westerns" from the last two years, ranked from worst to best:
5) The worst of the five westerns on this list is hands down Kurt Russel's Bone Tomahawk, which is too slow at the start, too gory at the end and all around unappetizing.
The premise of the movie is that a cannibal tribe has kidnapped a woman and a posse of townies (led by Russel as the sheriff) have to track them down and get her back. Their slow trip is covered in mind-numbing detail, and once they actually get to the bad guy's cave-fort it gets very brutal very fast (people are split in two starting at the crotch). And that isn't even the grossest part of the film: the cannibals come off as pretty racist because they are the only non-white characters in the film and they aren't given any humanity at all.
I now there's an audience for this movie because it's basically a carbon copy of a low budget 80's exploitation film (where the box cover would promise immense gore, and the end of the movie would go out of its way to deliver that gore, but the bulk of the movie was actually boring stretches of bad dialogue that was cheaper to shoot.) Alas, I am not one of those people that's nostalgic for those mostly unwatchable films.
4) As I said up top Jane Got a Gun is totally fine, but it isn't particularly memorable. Honestly, this script could have been turned into a movie in 1959 (although they probably would have toned down the brothel scene slightly back then.) As the most conventional film on this list its the least worth discussing in depth.
3) Slow West is a revisionist western starring Michael Fassbender as Silas, a gun-toting bad-ass who is escorting an Irish soft-ass named Jay across the plains so he can be reunited with his true love Rose who was banished to America before the start of the movie by her controlling father. (I suppose Jay would call himself a "romantic" and not a "soft-ass", but the bulk of the movie's middle is spent comparing Jay's idealized version of the West with Silas' more realistic view, and unfortunately for Jay this movie is totally on Silas' side.)
Overall I enjoyed the film's mytho-poetic deconstruction of America's foundational myths (which mostly occur around campfires, as Fassbender gruffly explains to his foreign charge why all the stories he's read are bullshit). That said, Slow West never felt quite necessary to me. Westerns are such an after thought in our culture now that undercutting their simplistic horseshit doesn't feel particularly urgent anymore.
Besides, this film kind of falls into the same trap as Jane Got A Gun: it's fine (maybe even good) but there are other films out there doing this same thing but better. For example, In Bruges has a similar two-mismatched-guys-bullshitting-about-everything-while-killing-time vibe but the dialogue in that movie is much funnier.
More importantly, this film can't hold a candle to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which is also all about deconstructing the myths of the Old West, but which actually feels epic, and its pay-off is much, much more emotionally impactful.
2) Honestly, the Keeping Room might be better than my number one pick, but I'm knocking it down a peg because it isn't quite a true western, not even in this (rather broad) context.
The Keeping Room is set on a farm in Georgia at the tail end of the Civil War. All the men are gone and have been for some time, meaning that the only people left to hold down the fort are two sisters (one barely an adult and one still a teen) and a female slave who is not quite their friend and not quite their servant.
Thus when a pack of marauding war deserters (led by Sam Worthington, best known as Avatar's bland as hell main character) besieges their farm the three women have to defend it themselves... All the while knowing that if they manage to fend off the outlaws it is only a matter of time before they will have to defend themselves against the entire Union Army, which is currently stomping through their neck of the woods and setting everything in its path on fire.
This is a mixture of home invasion horror movie, feminist character drama and Western, and it does a surprisingly good job of blending all those genres into a compelling / emotionally distressing whole. The Keeping Room is the best kind of revisionism, because it feels like it's trying to add something to the genre rather than merely undercutting it, and it's inclusion of a female perspective (and especially a black female perspective) is a welcome addition to a very male genre.
I would recommend this, but only if you feel like getting slightly traumatized.
1) The Salvation stars Mads Mikkelson (aka tv's Hannibal Lecter) as an uncompromising bad-ass who is determined to get revenge on the bad guys who murdered his wife. I know that sounds fairly generic (and it kind of is), but nonetheless this is as good of a western as you are going to get.
For starters, Mikkelson is an ideal heir to Clint Eastwood's throne as Hollywood's top charasmatic-but-untalkative gunslinger. Generic westerns paint their characters as being either good or evil while great westerns have always painted their characters as either being pragmatic or unpragmatic, and Mikkelson is one of those rare actors who always seems to exist in a framework that isn't quite any of those things. There's something about his cold blue eyes that makes you pity him even as he's acting like a monster; you want to root for him to get the varmints who done him wrong even though you can never completely forget that his quest for vengeance is a fool's errand because nothing will ever bring his wife back.
But while The Salvation does a good job of accomplishing a revisionist western's two main goals (ie, exploring America's fraught relationship to violence in a high minded manner while simultaneously indulging in our bloodlust in the name of entertainment), my main reason for recommending it isn't particularly philosophical. No, in my mind The Salvation's main appeal is its cinematography, which is gorgeous. Even if this film hadn't had the best action set pieces I would still have given this the top spot on this list because this is the Western that makes the best use of it's setting. The Salvation takes place in a world that is awe inspiring but never inviting, and I'm glad that I can live in a time where I can see such sights without having to endure them personally.
I mean seriously look at this shit and tell me that it doesn't look like an awesome painting: