Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Arts

Western suggestions

Tomorrow it’s Cowboy Day in the US. Hannah Dunleavy suggests you spend the weekend watching a western and is here with some of her favourites.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. Photo: Lorey Sebastian.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. Photo: Lorey Sebastian.

True Grit (2010)

No Country for Old Men wasn’t just a cracking film, it was a clear flag that if the Coen Brothers ever made a western it was going to be awesome. Three years later that theory was proved correct with their interpretation of Charles Portis’ novel (previously adapted in 1969, in a film that won John Wayne an Oscar).

At the time, much of the discussion surrounded Jeff Bridges’ performance and how The Dude measured up to The Duke, which really missed the point. Because this True Grit is all about Hailee Steinfeld, as the almost preternaturally smart and bold 14-year-old who hires drunken, one-eyed ranger ‘Rooster’ Cogburn to take her into the Choctaw nation to track down the man who killed her father.

It manages to be both unmistakably Coen Brothers and unmistakably western, which makes it unmistakably brilliant.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

assassination of jesse jamesLong name, long film, totally worth it. Australian Andrew Dominik succeeded on so many levels here – not least making the best Terence Malick film Terence Malick never made. It’s gorgeous to look at and boasts the sort of supporting cast people would rob a train for, including Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard and Garret Dillahunt.

It’s largely a musing on the nature of celebrity and central to its success are its two lead performances. Brad Pitt is terrific (and a lot like Eric Bana in Dominik’s first film, Chopper) as the increasingly paranoid James, who has the veneer of a personable man but one you know could blow at any moment.

And Casey Affleck is all over it as Ford, a weak and needy man who forces his way into the outlaw’s life, setting them on a path which will eventually lead to the moment the title describes.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

There’s not really time to discuss the use of violence in Sam Peckinpah films here; just know that they are violent and that this may be the most violent of them all.

The Wild BunchSet in 1913, it tells the tale of William Holden’s gang of old-timers, struggling to come to terms with the pace of change in the new world. When a bank robbery doesn’t go to plan they head for Mexico. Corruption and a series of betrayals force them into a corner and they take a decision, which could both redeem them and seal their fates. All of which culminates in the longest, bloodiest and most controversial final scenes cinema’s given us. Brace yourselves.

Unforgiven (1992)

UnforgivenForget those awful spaghetti westerns, if you’re going to watch Clint Eastwood as a cowboy, for the love of God, make it this. It’s an epic morality tale, which, like The Wild Bunch, focuses on old men getting the opportunity to make a difference one last time, as well as being a critique of the genre itself.

When a prostitute has her face cut by a customer, her friends raise a bounty. It draws a bunch of chancers to Big Whiskey, Wyoming, which is run by the sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman).

Throw in Eastwood, Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman, some wonderful wide-open spaces and (unlike The Wild Bunch) a constant reminder of the moral ramifications of taking a life and you’ve got possibly the greatest western of all time.

The Searchers (1956)

Vying for that title of greatest western ever is this John Ford classic, which changed the landscape of cowboy films and – by the necessity of production – the landscape of Monument Valley.

The SearchersWhen Debbie (Natalie Wood) is captured by the Comanches, her uncle Ethan (John Wayne) and cousin set out to find her. What follows is action packed, as scenic as you could wish for and incredibly dark, as the slow realisation of what ethnic purist Ethan plans to do when he finds Debbie is revealed.

Lone Star (1996)

One of a number of truly excellent neo-Westerns (see also The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) set in and around Texas border towns, Lone Star is considered John Sayles’ masterpiece.

Lone StarWhen a skeleton is discovered in the desert, it falls to Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) to investigate. He immediately suspects it’s that of one of his corrupt predecessors (played in flashback by Kris Kristofferson) and that his local hero father (played, again in flashback, by Matthew McConaughey) is the killer.

Poking around in the past, and particularly that of his own family, in a town riddled with racial strife and Daddy issues reveals all sorts of secrets he doesn’t want to know and Cooper is excellent as the man who comes to learn that some things are better left buried.

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.