ADVENTURES IN STREAMING
EACH ISSUE, OUR INTREPID WRITER FOLLOWS NETFLIX’S COMPUTERCALIBRATED RECOMMENDATIONS, GOING WHEREVER THE TRAIL LEADS Westerns
SIMON CROOK REAT GENRES NEVER die. They just get reinvented. In this shiny superhero age, Hollywood’s slapped a Least Wanted poster up for the neglected Western, but, as this marathon proves, it remains an astonishingly adaptable genre. Still, if you want confirmation of how unfashionable cowboys are, Netflix doesn’t even list “Westerns” in its search categories. Dig around, though, and there’s buried gold waiting to be excavated.
First up: . Or, as at it should’ve been called, The Magnificent Mr. Tonto. Reteaming with Gore Verbinski, this is Johnny Depp’s attempt to Jack Sparrow-ise the Western, reinterpreting Tonto as a Comanche Buster Keaton in stripy Kiss make-up — a scene-gulping performance so bracingly bizarre that Armie Hammer’s masked avenger gets relegated to sidekick status. Following Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and Cowboys & Aliens, The Lone Ranger’s box-office bellyflopping suggests the Blockbuster Western is a seriously cursed subgenre. Okay, so it’s convoluted, overblown and seems to last longer than a trip to Pluto, but there are bursts of brilliance too, and it’s worth catching for its two runaway-train action sequences. No other director constructs set-pieces quite like Verbinski. They’re like crazed Heath Robinson contraptions — intricate, escalating chain-reactions that fizz and clatter with breathless invention.
Another heroic “injun” features in the rambling , a prequel to The Carpetbaggers (yep, prequels existed in 1966). After merciless outlaws slaughter his parents, a Sioux “halfbreed” embarks on a revenge odyssey. The legendary Lucien Ballard’s cinematography deploys looming panoramas to enhance Smith’s isolation, and his character arc, from naive kid to icy gunslinger, is compelling, but there’s a massive, trumpeting elephant in the saloon bar — we’re meant to swallow a blond, blue-eyed Steve Mcqueen, then 36, as a 16 year-old Native American. What is authentic is Mcqueen’s insane, DIY stunt-work — check out the notorious cattle-stampede, 40 minutes in, that nearly trampled Mcqueen into a man-burger.
Like Nevada Smith, is an episodic, coming-of-age Western, but wilfully weird and melancholic. Fresh from the Scottish Highlands, Kodi Smit-mcphee wanders the frontier searching for his long-lost love, accompanied by Michael Fassbender’s devious, cherootchewing bounty hunter. Seen through Smit-mcphee’s outsider eye, familiar Wild West tropes suddenly seem alien and exotic. Typical scene: a gunfight during an absinthe binge. This is the directorial debut of The Beta Band’s John Maclean, and you could argue he’s spirited his group’s gonzo folktronica into cinematic form. It’s ultra-ironic, bittersweet and absurdly funny — if Jim Jarmusch and early Coen Brothers are your jam, take a ride.
From Slow West to slow Western. After Maclean’s genre-deconstruction job,
looks obdurately old-school. Paced at a casual mosey before blasting into violence, Kevin Costner’s love-letter to the genre’s golden age pits Costner and Robert Duvall’s freegrazing cowboys against Michael Gambon’s mega-bastard rancher — a turf-war settled in a blistering real-time shootout that, for my money, is one of the very best in the genre. Scuzzy realism undercuts Costner’s romanticised West, but with its old-timers, shady sheriffs, saloon scuffles and macho code of honour, it plays like a forgotten Howard Hawks classic. Shot in 2003, it could well be the last truly traditional studio Western, and thunders off into the sunset in emphatic style.
A Western marathon without Clint is like a gun without a bullet. is by far Eastwood’s most subversive oater, contorting the Spaghetti Western into hellish gothic-horror. Arriving through a distorted heat-haze, soundtracked by a hooting choir that sounds like an owl sat on a drawing pin, Clint’s man-with-no-name rides into a town bullied by outlaws. So far, so familiar, but his reward for killing them is God-like control over the populace. Given they stood back and watched their last sheriff get graphically bullwhipped to death, the ensuing tyranny’s fully deserved. Clint’s antihero makes a total mockery of the Western’s black-hat/white-hat moral simplicity. Just who the hell is he? The sheriff’s brother? The sheriff’s ghost? An angel? A demon? It’s an unanswerable question, left dangling in its eerie final shot, and likely to brainworm you for the rest of your viewing life.