The Wild West in the South of France

8 minute read

The Cannes Film Festival has become a rescue home for lost movie genres. In our last post we discussed the return of the erotic drama, notably Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room. Today, it’s the Western. The backbone of American movies from the 1930s through the ’70s, the Western nearly disappeared as Hollywood traded in the historical past for the fantasy future, and six-shooters for light sabers.

Yes, Star Wars is a Western in space suits (actually, it’s a version of Akira Kurosawa’s “Eastern Western” The Hidden Fortress, inspired by many a Hollywood oater). And the superheroes of Marvel movies are often outsized outsiders with grudges: John Wayne types who save the world instead of a stagecoach. But real Westerns, set in 19th-century pioneer days as wagon wheels dig ruts into the unforgiving plains, are hard to find — unless you come to this year’s Cannes and find two playing on the same day, and a couple of other films that look like Westerns in modern or postmodern garb. The directors come from Denmark, Argentina, Australia and America, with Hollywood curmudgeon Tommy Lee Jones leading the pack.

(READ: Corliss on the Western — Its Long Life, Death and Rebirth)

Jones has played many a varmint; he directed himself as one in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which premiered here in 2005 and won Jones a Best Actor award, while Guillermo Arriaga’s script took the Screenplay prize. He’s back as the star, director and co-adaptor of Glendon Swarthout’s novel The Homesman. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a sturdy spinster in the Nebraska territories of the 1850s, agrees to transport three young women, deranged by the harsh pioneer life, to Iowa and the loving care of a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep). Putting a reverse spin on Horace Greeley’s dictum of manifest destiny, the motto here is “Go East, not-so-young woman.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada)

She can’t do the job alone, and finds an unlikely partner in George Briggs (Jones), a seedy claim-jumper she finds dangling on horseback from the end of a lyncher’s rope. For cutting that rope, and $300 at the end of the journey, Briggs agrees to drive Cuddy’s cart and the three madwomen to a place where they may find rest and he his freedom. This unlikely pair — who have kin in the roles taken by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen and Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara — form a workplace bond as they fight off an Indian incursion and tend to their pathetic charges, two catatonic and one believing herself to be possessed by demons.

Swarthout’s novels inspired movie Westerns with prime flinty stars: Randolph Scott in 7th Cavalry, Gary Cooper in They Came to Cordura and John Wayne in his final film, The Shootist. (Another Swarthout novel became the prototype Spring Break comedy Where the Boys Are.) The Homesman has been on the radar of American moviemakers ever since its publication in 1988; Paul Newman hoped to direct and star in a movie version, and playwright-actor Sam Shepard wanted to write one. What’s amazing and depressing is that few movies in the intervening quarter century centrally addressed the issues of women and their hardships in pioneer days; Kelly Reichardt’s indie Western Meek’s Cutoff is the only one that springs to mind. So it’s past time we had this film.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Meek’s Cutoff)

The Jones adaptation closely follows the book’s plot surprises (multiple hangings) and its theme of intertwined redemption and despair. His Homesman never takes flight into poetry, and doesn’t delve into the psychology of the three women (played by Mirando Otto, Sonja Richter and Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer); they are just worrisome cargo, wild animals in Mary Bee’s one-cart circus.

Even the prickly interdependence of the spinster and her mulish employee has less drama than the relationship of the two to the grim grandeur of their environment. Ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Babel, Argo, The Wolf of Wall Street) wrings sprung-rhythm poetry from the New Mexico and Georgia settings that doubled for Nebraska and Iowa. The land and the life were so harsh, one wonders that more men and women, when their golden dreams turned to nightmares, didn’t forsake the way West and head back East, either raving mad or seeking the sane comfort of civilization.

The grim tropes of the classic Western infused two other movies that received their world premieres this Cannes weekend. David Michôd’s The Rover relocates the genre’s elemental animosities to the desolate Australian outback, and the past to the near-future, “10 years after the Collapse,” when (according to Michôd’s scenario) Australia is “a resource-rich Third World power.” Mining has drawn men there — tough men, their ethics defined by their appetites. These Westerns ride in trucks, not on horses, and the force that propels the bitter loner Eric (Guy Pearce) is a simple one: “I want my car back.”

Borrowing the tone, if not the ferocious kick, of George Miller’s first Mad Max movie, Michôd sets up some ornery brotherhood in Eric’s meeting with the American Rey (Robert Pattinson), whose elder brother was one of the thugs who stole Eric’s car. We wish that their relationship played out with the complex criminal vectors that the writer-director brought to his first feature, Animal Kingdom. Little more than parched-earth pastiche, the movie doesn’t live up to Michôd’s grand synopsis: “It’s about the rapacious capacity for under-regulated Western economies to destroy themselves, and it’s about the seemingly inevitable shift of global power.” Actually, it’s about an hour 42 minutes.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom)

Pablo Fendrik’s The Ardor exchanges the American desert for the Argentinian rainforest — though, in all that humidity, times and men are just as hard. Mercenaries in the employ of some multinational nasties have seized a family’s property, killed the father and kidnapped the daughter (Alice Braga). She needs a savior and gets one in Kai (Gael García Bernal), who grew up in the area and has returned to take revenge on those who would despoil it. Braga’s intelligent luster and Bernal’s sandpaper machismo make a combustible match, in a Westernish melodrama with good guys, bad guys and a climactic fight to save one of the world’s last great natural resources.

(READ: Gael Garcìa Bernal in the Argentinian Oscar nominee No)

Kristian Levring’s The Salvation contains aspects of all the other Cannes weekend “Westerns”: fist fights and gunplay, vast expanses of remorseless terrain, strong women ravaged by savage men and, behind these villains, the distant entrepreneurs who will benefit from exploiting a new frontier. The movie is also, on its own, a terrifying, tremendous fun.

1871: Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) has come to America to build a homestead for his wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius, better known as the singer Oh Land) and their 10-year-old son. They have finally joined him, and on a stagecoach to the homestead, two scurvy dudes make a play for Marie, and when Jon pulls a gun on one of the men, the other puts a knife to the boy’s throat and kicks Jon off the coach. When he catches up with it, the driver is dead, as are Jon’s wife and child. Jon blows the varlets to bits, and totes his beloveds’ corpses to his home.

(READ: How Kristian Levring helped created the film form called Dogme)

That’s about the first 10 minutes of a Western omelet that pays tribute to the films of John Ford (especially his greatest Western, The Searchers) and Sergio Leone, while creating its own savory personality. Black Creek, the one town near Jon’s home, is in the effective ownership of a gang of villains led by the imposing Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), brother of one of the men Jon killed. In recompense, he insists that the villagers choose two of their members to die; the Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and Sheriff (Douglas Henshall) cravenly oblige. Delarue’s brother had been married to Princess (Eva Green), whose dark beauty is scarred by an American Indian who sliced her lips and cut out her tongue. As Jon is captured and tortured by the gang, and escapes with the help of his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrant), he finds that Princess may be his only hope in a den of devils in the hottest circle of Hell.

Even if the movie weren’t super-cool, it would be worth watching for the interplay of all these miscreants, particularly Mikkelsen (who plays Hannibal Lecter on the NBC series and won Cannes’ Best Actor prize two years ago for The Hunt) and Green, the modern screen’s great siren. But this is more than an actors showcase. Neither poking fun at the genre nor elevating it to wild, Tarantinian apotheosis, The Salvation restores the Western as a living form with artistic and political applications to our world. One hint: the town is called Black Creek because there’s oil underneath. And back East, some men more malevolent than Delarue are driving the townspeople off their farms for the crudest reason of all.

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