The Western ceased as an artform in early 1993, when Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven closed the chapter on a much-loved and rarely-maligned genre. Westerns were wholly post Manifest United States, though their premise has been recycled through Shakespeare and Kurosawa, setting the human experience against a backdrop of nothhingness – as the desert has sand and more desert – removes the setting from the movie’s intent. Every character written into a western usually exudes an invisible two-mile sphere from her center point that seemingly bounces off every object with which it comes in contact. This is a prerequisite for this genre it seems, that operates on lone-wolf syndrome and synthesis: the character on which we focus has a larger bubble than everyone else and we, the audience, are supposed to fit empathy inside of it.
Classic westerns, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, say, dive into bubble-man vs. other bubble-man, bubble-man vs. bubble-community, bubble-man vs. bubble-treasure. Unforgiven asked the audience to examine the self-immolation of bubble-man vs. himself; Eastwood gives his soul the diameter to which so many directors gave the untouchable treatment. This should make this man explode, but there is a pensive quality and a finality to Unforgiven that mostly left the genre undoable anymore. Reworks always fell short and any new attempts at a western came across as aloof, pastiche, or marred by too-small bubbles. If the characters were either not approachable enough or too approachable, or they became caricatures of themselves, the western genre and especially audience would abjectly reject them, sometimes especially quickly or without a second thought. Even acceptable remakes, though wildly unnecessary, like 2010’s True Grit remake (with Jeff Bridges [good casting] in John Wayne’s role), fell short of the atmosphere and ambiance they aimed to capture. It was a consequence of the genre itself bursting out any approachable ideas.
Hell or High Water pierced this veil. This movie is so good while being so modern that it seems to exist solely because no critic could outright dismiss it and no audience could, even subliminally, ignore it. Jeff Bridges, seemingly born to remake Westerns, absolutely crushes his role as stoic-cum-playful sheriff, but the star of this movie is Chris Pine, campy-bubble-man Kirk in Star Trek iterations. He is almost too handsome to make me believe that he has suffered as much as he did, but nevertheless, the steel bubble he erects around his person is ferociously believable and the setting, Texas in its many iterations, is functionally an anti-setting: the trope of lawless West Texas has become part of the history that, culturally, it doesn’t need an explanation. West Texas is the bubble Hell or High Water is trying to wedge into. Then, there is a bubble around the whole state. How can a character study resolve this?
Chris Pine tumbles right into Lawless, TX with big problems and leaves Destruction, TX with smaller problems. Hell or High Water resolves locally, maybe, but leaves its capacity to define modern life wildly unfamiliar and uncertain. The Western genre needed an injection of uncertainty to attain relevance once again – this movie makes hot choices about what it means to exist in the desert with twelve Taco Bells and a bank a mile. Its characters are believably just in their approach and dramatically tragic in their resolution. Not every character makes it out of this story alive or intact, but damn if the banks don’t stay standing. What was once an unknowable bubble of humanity tumbling aimlessly, Hell or High Water approaches with zest and pragmatism that neither takes a wholly global audience for a ride against the idea that we never should have built west of the Rockies anyway.
Moonlight was one hundred per cent destined, correctly, to take home Best Picture in 2016. No movie to date had tackled race, sexuality, and poverty, generationally at all let alone tremendously. The acting in this movie is so visceral, and Barry Jenkins’ insistence that we see a face, right there, and forever, ensured that we were not only watching a maneth become, but we were witnessing the monolith of humanity self-evaluate right on the screen. If ever there was a Western that wasn’t, it is Moonlight. Genre saved. The hilarious joke that La La Land could have matched what Moonlight did is phenomenally silly and pretentious. If the Academy operates from a position of standards, and, like this blog argues that the Academy rewards the movie that best encapsulates the cultural zeitgeist for that specific year, the best it can, then Moonlight is an example of a no-question winner. Even great character studies like Manchester By The Sea, Lion, and Hacksaw Ridge, phenomenal and pragmatic as choices, could not capture what Moonlight did, and does, until when we are ghosts.