The Return of the Western!

Westerns might be the first genre of movie that I came to love growing up. Though, by the time I was watching movies, Westerns had largely died out and were rarely made any more. In 2021, it seems like the Western came back in a big way!

I have had this website for a while now, and I kept changing my ideas about what to do with it. I’ve used it to share tutoring materials, old lab projects, photos… But if anyone is familiar with my Facebook page, the only thing I seem to be able to do consistently is watch and talk about movies. So I thought I might as well do that here too.

Clint Eastwood was my favorite movie star growing up.

2021 was, somehow, a big year for Westerns. The Power of the Dog, Old Henry, and The Harder They Fall were all released towards the end of 2021. Even though, due to ongoing pandemic, 2021 was not a great year for theatrical releases, all three films receive a warm critical reception. Is the Western back? Is it here to stay? While I think all three of these films are worth seeing, only one makes me want to put it into the rotation of movies that I re-watch periodically.

Old Henry

Old Henry feels like a familiar movie. An old homesteader is doing his best to move on from his mysterious past and live a peaceful life, but trouble still finds him, and he is forced to take up his gun once again…

Old Henry (2021) - IMDb
Tim Blake Nelson is not your typical leading man, but he delivers in Old Henry.

The biggest thing that sets Old Henry apart is its star. Tim Blake Nelson is a long-time character actor who you will usually find in supporting roles. He has occasionally functioned as a co-lead in ensemble pieces like the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Though and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But here Tim Blake Nelson is the titular Old Henry, and he seems perfectly at home in the spotlight. Nelson and fellow underappreciated actor Stephen Dorff carry us through a fairly simple and predictable but satisfying little flick.

Old Henry is a fun, simple movie that does everything it needs to do in its brisk 99 minute runtime. It’s not especially pretty, nor is the score particularly exciting, but it is still a well-crafted little movie. It has well-choreographed shootouts and just enough twists and turns to stay interesting. Plus, young Gavin Lewis turns in a surprisingly compelling performance as Henry’s frustrated teenage son. I will have to keep an eye out for his future performances.

Amazon.com: Unforgiven Movie Poster 1 Sided Original Final 27x40 Clint  Eastwood: Posters & Prints
Old Henry is reminiscent of Unforgiven, but with a tighter focus and less commitment to its anti-violent message.

Some credit Unforgiven with ushering in the brutal, realistic age of the revisionist Western – killing the classic Western adventure in the process. Old Henry feels like an attempt to turn back the clock. Old Henry is gritty and visceral – just like Unforgiven. But unlike Unforgiven where every character feels like a real, living person, the bad guys in Old Henry are just that – bad guys. Even though the movie gives some lip service to an anti-violence message, it still feels like a return to the halcyon days when Clint Eastwood or John Wayne mowed down waves of nameless goons without challenging the audience to really think about the cost of the violence he was inflicting. Old Henry is a fun watch, and I would definitely recommend seeing it once. However, I do not foresee myself returning to watch it again. I’d probably just re-watch Unforgiven.

The Power of the Dog

Speaking of revisionist westerns… The Power of the Dog is a slow-burning psychological drama. The gentle pacing and emotional focus of this film remind me more of a dramatic Western miniseries like Lonesome Dove or abstract period piece Oscar-bait like There Will Be Blood. However, the setting in early 20th century Montana, themes of isolation and independence, and the use of natural environments are enough for me to count it as a Western. Not every Western has to have a shootout.

The Power of the Dog (2021) - IMDb
The Power of the Dog is all about sexuality, but struggles to get to the point.

The story centers around recently remarried widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and her hostile brother-in-law Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film is an exploration of masculinity, and centers on a conflict between Phil’s rough outdoorsy machismo and Peter’s soft-spoken femininity. Phil is something of a master of passive-aggressive emotional torture, which he uses to great effect on Rose. It’s Old-West Gaslight.

The Power of the Dog is beautiful to look at and has a minimalist score that eases us into the film before settling into subtly menacing us the rest of the movie. The cast is top-notch, and on some level, I can understand why it is raking in nominations and awards left and right. But the film didn’t quite come together for me. Kirsten Dunst’s performance is great, but she gets sidelined mid-movie and has very little to do in the third act. The emotion of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance comes through, but his American accent occasionally falters, and the film never really lets him show the full ugliness of his conflicted and self-hating character. And while the film explores some interesting themes – masculinity, self-reliance, sexuality, social roles… it also never really feels like it comes to a conclusion or makes any strong statements. It explores without really finding anything.

I still recommend The Power of the Dog, and I want to see it again. Perhaps I will appreciate it more on a second viewing. At minimum, it is a beautifully-shot film with some excellent performances. Still, I feel that it has some structural and tonal issues that make it less powerful than it ought to have been.

If you want to get your Kirsten Dunst fix from a period drama that explores the tension between individual sexuality and social norms, I would recommend Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled instead. It, too, is beautiful to look at, full of incredible performances, and digs deep into human nature. However, it is much more tightly structured, and I think it has more to say and does a better job getting the message across.

I liked The Power of the Dog just fine, but I loved The Beguiled.

The Harder They Fall

I told you that there was one Western in 2021 that deserved a place in the pantheon, and this was it. Guys – this movie rocks.

The Harder They Fall (2021) - IMDb
The Harder They Fall. See it ASAP with a big screen, a loud sound system, and lots of popcorn.

There is a format to a typical Clint Eastwood Western. He’s a peaceful man, minding his own business. The Bad Guy wrongs him. Our hero spends the rest of the movie shooting people. It’s a simple formula and it works.

The Harder They Fall does follow the Eastwood formula, but it builds a lot on top of the familiar format. First and foremost, the entire principal cast is Black – a rarity in the Western genre, and a reality in actual Western history. To drive that point home, the movie opens with “These. People. Existed.” The characters in the film are based, albeit very loosely, on real historical figures. Add to that a perfectly calibrated soundtrack and some cinematography that rivals The Power of the Dog, and you have a movie that is both exciting entertainment and compelling art.

The cast is loaded – Idris Elba, Zazi Beets, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield… Elba AND Stanfield! The main person I was not familiar with was the lead, Jonathan Majors, but he had no trouble convincing me he was a bona-fide move star.

How And Why The Harder They Fall All-White Town Was Created - Netflix Tudum
Did I mention that this movie is pretty yet?

Somehow, even though Old Henry was a continuation of the revisionist Western style and The Power of the Dog was a somewhat unstructured drama that didn’t fit well into any particular category, it was The Harder they Fall‘s rehashing of a well-worn formula that still felt the most fresh and exciting. This movie is fun, but also has some real character-driven drama that gives the movie real stakes. Even the antagonist, who at first seems like a typical vicious Western baddie, has a surprising amount of depth. And the final showdown is… I won’t spoil it.

There have been some pretty good Westerns in recent memory. The remake of The Magnificent Seven wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great. Django Unchained was good, but dipped its toe too deep into real human suffering to be much fun and had too many wild gunfights and too much wacky humor to actually say anything about that suffering. The Hateful Eight was loaded with on-screen talent, made good use of a beautiful setting, and had an incredible score. But it was also a bit of a slow, bloated, and boring mess that badly needed an editor. The Harder They Fall feels like everything that the Tarantino Westerns wanted to be and more, but in a much sleeker, more coherent package.

I definitely recommend The Harder They Fall. It is the most fun I have had watching a Western made this millennium, and one of the only ones (along with The Proposition and True Grit) that I am likely to re-watch regularly.