(Note: my understandings of Westerns are largely colored by my reading of Lee Clark Mitchell’s Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film, a book I do not have accessible currently, and have not read in several years. If I say things here that overlap with arguments of Mitchell’s, it’s because of the influence his work had on my understanding of these movies)
I have, for many years, been a great fan of Westerns, something that goes back to me watching episodes of Gunsmoke and The Rifleman with my grandma as a boy. I’ve thought about Westerns some as well, but never in an exactly formal way. I’ve watched many Westerns in my life, though I’ve recently fallen away from the genre, inasmuch as I generally watch less movies than I used to, and those I do watch tend to be of other genres–our interests wax and wane, after all.
A week or so ago, my interest in watching and thinking about Westerns was rekindled after watching the 2016 David MacKenzie film Hell or High Water, a movie I enjoyed very much and found to be very intriguing on a number of levels. The Wikipedia entry for the film describes it as a “neo-Western,” a subgenre that, in most interpretations, simply translates the thematic concerns of the genre’s Old West-based sources into contemporary times and settings. That’s a fair assessment, of course, but I nevertheless feel that it’s lacking; it seems to me that a neo-Western need not simply be an Old Western in a new setting (though that may certainly be, and often is, an aspect), but a film that takes the tropes of the traditional Western and adds to them something else, something that traditional Westerns do not explore, that is beyond their purview. Before discussing what this “something else” may be, it will be useful to rehearse what the characteristics of Westerns, generally, are.
First, a Western takes place in the West. “West” here does not imply a particular geographic location, being west of the Mississippi River (one of the finest Westerns of recent years is 2005’s The Proposition, set in the Australian Outback rather than Kansas or west Texas or the Dakota Territory, for instance). To understand what is meant by “West,” it is helpful to remember the predecessors of the genre in 18th and 19th century literature.
The Western develops out of the border romance. “Romance” here does not imply love and sex (though this is often a part of the border romance). I’ll avoid the temptation to rehearse the origins of the word “romance” and its connections to the fall of Western Roman Empire and the many courts and marriages of Eleanor of Aquitaine; suffice it to say that “romance” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a term used for a prose work of sweeping and grand scale, that explored themes–like war, violence, struggle, death, and heroism–that were traditionally the purview of long-form narrative poetry. The term “novel” was often associated with long prose works concerned with domestic affairs, normally with questions of love and marriage. In America at least, “novel” was often seen as a “feminine,” and thus suspect, sort of intellectual labour. “Romances,” on the other hand, were manly works concerned with sweeping, manly themes. The distinction between novel and romance faded over the course of the 19th century, and “novel” eventually won out as a generic term for any long-form prose fiction.
The development of the Western out of the border romance helps us understand the genre’s broader conceits. The border romance (its chief American practitioners are James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms) is concerned with civilization’s edge, and with a man’s engagement with this edge. The border, the frontier, is a liminal space that is always just beyond the edge of civilization, but which is being ever-encroached on by civilization. It is thus caught between unbounded wildness and civilized domesticity, and in this in-between space a man–and in these works, it is always a man–must either conquer wildness for civilization or liberate it (or at least liberate himself) from ever-encroaching civilization.
Thus, as the Western evolves out of the border romance, “the West” becomes identified a place set between unbounded wildness and civilization, the site of contention between two countervailing forces. For historical reasons, a particular geographic area became this site in the second half of the 19th-century in America; thus, we may understand Huck Finn as both the last border romance and the first Western, with its ending of Huck declaring he’ll avoid being “sivilized” by his “light[ing] out for the territories”–for the broad expanses of the West as a geographic region. But for the Western as a genre, “the West” as a location is not a geographic region, but rather this place between civilization and wilderness, a place that is also expansive enough to test ones mettle within the dance of these two countervailing forces. It is wide and open, while also at the same time being precariously positioned between the boundless chaos of the wild and the overly-bounded order of civilization; the West thus has hard boundaries around it–wild on one side, civilization on the other–while also being broad, open, and empty. In this, the West-as-a-place combines the essential characteristics of both countervailing forces within itself, creating a third space, the very existence of which is always and necessarily precarious, inasmuch as one of the two countervailing forces might eventually subsume the other.
This brings us to our second characteristic of the Western–violence. Violence is necessary and endemic to the Western precisely because of the precarious nature of its setting. The Western takes place in a site of conflict–natural, physical, societal, and/or existential–and the hero’s existence within this location necessarily depends on his ability to use violence of some sort. Violence must either be controlled and regulated or, in other cases, forcibly and skillfully utilized. Without utilizing violence, the hero will be destroyed (either directly, or via the desecration of the thing he holds sacred: family, civilization, wilderness, love, greed, etc.) by forces outside of himself, and without utilizing violence properly, the hero (or again, whatever he holds sacred) will be destroyed by his own self.
Violence, in turn, brings us to our third characteristic of the Western–its morality. The Western is certainly the most moral of our genres of film, inasmuch as it is deeply invested in making sense of questions of virtue and vice, distinguishing between these, and wrestling with the consequences of each. The morality of the Western is connected to its violence which is, in turn, connected to its setting in “the West” as a site of conflict. This is not to say that the Western is a Manichean genre, neatly distinguishing between virtue and vice (horror films are the most flatly black-and-white movies in their morals, to my mind). To the contrary, it is almost unique in its willful and active muddying of the lines between the two, a profoundly Aristotelian genre that shows the great difficulty of rightly hitting on the via media. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the Philosopher argues that all virtues are rightly-ordered versions of what would otherwise be vices; too little courage makes one a vicious coward, too much courage makes one a vicious fool with either a deathwish or vain illusions about one’s own strength, but just enough courage makes one properly virtuous, and thus actually possessing the virtue of courage, not some vicious, deformed shadow thereof. Virtue is thus also liminally-situated–just as “the West” is–and the Western, as a genre, neatly fits into an Aristotelian virtue-ethic framework. However, the Western also clearly, and often, articulates just how incredibly difficult it is to arrive at the proper constitution of virtue. Vice in the Western is normally a nihilistic expression of the extremes of wilderness (think Anton Chigruh in No Country For Old Men) or of civilization (think another of Cormac McCarthy’s villians, Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, who keeps a book so that–paraphrasing–“nothing can exist without his mastery over it”). Expressions of virtue in Westerns must thus contend with such vicious extremes that the service of virtue often necessitates extreme actions, which themselves undermine the ability to arrive properly at virtue. Thus the Western hero is often an anti-hero; and even when he is a traditional hero, he often must compromise some part of his code–however briefly–to be able to arrive at something at least approaching a virtuous mean. In many cases, such a virtuous mean is impossible. The complexity of these issues point to why the Western is perhaps the most significantly moral of our narrative genres.
Finally, the Western, in its morality and concomitant (anti-)heroism, is concerned with manhood, and masculinity–its shortcomings, its possibilities, its uses in the pursuit of virtue (through proper use of violence), and its predilections towards vice (through an improper use of violence). The Western is a genre primarily concerned with what manhood means, and how it works; this is true even in a film like the “feminist Western” Meek’s Cutoff, in which masculinity fails, and where the work of manhood has to be taken up by women.
Thus, the characteristics of a Western: a narrative of struggle and existence in a liminal space between civilization and wildness (“the West”), marked by violence necessitated by the demands of engaging morality within the West. In this violent, moral, and vexed landscape, the primary question is the meaning of masculinity, and how manhood helps, limits, or otherwise affects navigation of this violent, moral, and vexed place.
If these are the characteristics of a Western, then what is a neo-Western? Is it simply these same characteristics in a contemporary setting? As stated earlier, I think this is an incomplete assessment. While a contemporary setting may, in fact, be a part of the neo-Western, this subgenre adds an additional thematic layer: in the neo-Western, we are faced with (anti-)heroes who are profoundly aware of their own superfluity. That is, these movies show individuals who recognize that they do not belong in the setting in which they find themselves, but who are unable to exist anywhere else. These are not characters like Huck Finn, who will create for himself a place of stable existence in the territories (or who at least has the belief that such a thing is possible). Nor are they characters like the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s masterful trilogy, who possesses a comfortable existential stability, physically peripatetic as it may be. And while Gary Cooper’s character in the great High Noon may be pulled out of town by his pacifist, Quaker wife and driven out of town by the outlaws, he stands strong in the town because he knows this is where he belongs (the ending of that wonderful movie would take more unpacking than I have time to do here; suffice it to say, I do not think his leaving the town in the end invalidates my previous point, but actually supports it).
However, in the neo-Western, social, economic, and cultural changes have altered the very boundaries of wildness and civilization, to the extent that the heroes do not belong in the liminal space between these countervailing forces anymore than they belong in either one. Further, these same social, economic, and cultural changes have produced a situation in which virtue and vice are even more compromised and complicated than before. Masculinity in this changed world becomes a precarious identity, and how to express it becomes fraught and uncertain; the Man with No Name and Gary Cooper’s High Noon-sheriff do not, and cannot, exist as masculine archetypes to adopt. In this world, existential stability and human flourishing are impossibilities, and characters can only fight to survive and win, at best, small victories that delay the realization of their superfluity. Neo-Westerns, then, are not stories of hope, possibility, and potential thriving (however compromised this potential may be), but stories of mere survival and anxiety.
Or so is my working theory right now; more evidence is required. This means, of course, that I must watch more neo-Westerns, and write about these as I go. Shortly, I’ll be writing about the 2016 thriller Blood Father, starring Mel Gibson, which I watched last night. While not considered a Western, nor a neo-Western, it neatly fits the thematic concerns I outlined above. And while it is not a particularly great movie–ultimately, it’s a satisfying testosterone-fueled beat-’em-up more than anything else–it nevertheless reveals a few things that I think are useful entry points into understanding the neo-Western. That will be my first little write-up (much shorter than this piece), in what I think might turn into a small series of writings on this genre I suddenly find myself fascinated by.