In the traditional western, the hero saves the town, kills the villain, and all is right. But more often than not the genre depicts America’s ugliness – it’s injustices and cruelty. America, despite it’s great qualities and liberties, was built on violence and injustice. Many filmmakers have opted to show this historical accuracy instead of the fabled heroics: thus we should not repeat the past. Other filmmakers have used the genre staples as tools to show the injustices and struggles in contemporary settings.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Through intricate weaving of non-linear story telling, this tale of retribution delves into the loyalty and forgiveness. Horse rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) honors his promise to his recently murdered friend Melquiades Estrada to bury him in his home town in Mexico. Estrada’s murder at the hands of border patrol agent Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is brushed off by the American authorities and Perkins takes the responsibility of having Norton give Estrada the humanity he deserves. This film has plenty of grit, violence, and toughness but at it’s core it explores the American attitude toward immigrants. Estrada, an illegal worker, has no rights in America. His death does not incite anyone into action nor is his murderer punished. Perkins borders on madness for his belief in the rights of his friend and his extreme actions are necessary to change Norton’s obstinate views on illegal immigrants. America’s claim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is rarely tangible and this film exposes the injustices in the American immigration system.
Brokeback Mountain, 2005
Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee
A tales of forbidden love have struck emotional cords with audiences as far back as Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Brokeback Mountain is a love story between two men working as rustlers in the 1980s. Ennis’s (Heath Ledger) and Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) tale is tumultuous and they struggle to live the normal lives society deems upon them. Lee’s film exposes the American puritanical belief of sexuality and setting the story in an genuine American genre of cinema makes it even more poignant. Crash winning the Best Picture Academy Award for 2005 over Lee’s highly superior film is affirmation that the puritanical mind-set of a country is still ever present.
No Country for Old Men, 2007
Written for the screen by Joel and Ethan Cohen; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen
One can not find a tighter, simpler crime story than this. McCarthy’s essential American prose and the Cohens’ love of film noir plotting is married with brilliance. The story is simple: Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) finds a suitcase full of money, goes on the lamb, and deranged hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) relentlessly pursues him. Fitting neatly within the crime narrative is the aging lawman Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Ed is a man longing for simpler times. The escalating horrors of criminality left in Llewelyn’s wake evokes an existential crisis in Ed. In the penultimate scene of the film, Ed and his friend or brother Ellis (Barry Corbin) talk – exposing the absence of God, old age, and the inability to prevent the future. In the most earnest lines of dialogue in the film, Ellis states: “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s a-comin’. There ain’t no waitin’ on you.”
The film also explores the pitfalls of pursuing of the American dream. After serving in Vietnam and working in blue collar Texas, Llewelyn has found his big break in a suitcase full of money. But in America no one gives anyone a break. Chigurh’s use of “calling” heads or tails to conciliate his violence is a metaphor for how swiftly fairness in America can be granted or refused.
– Gregory Day