A recent story on an Internet movie site was going on and on about how the Western is dead, citing as evidence “The Hateful Eight,” suggesting that even Quentin Tarantino couldn’t do well enough at the box office to revive the genre.
So since “In the Heart of the Sea” flopped, is that the last we’ll see of movies set on the ocean? Since “The Finest Hours” opens today, I think not.
First, let’s be clear that “The Hateful Eight” is not a box-office flop, although it is looked upon as a disappointment, especially after the success achieved three years ago by Tarantino’s other Western, “Django Unchained.”
Second, these prognostications are all too common. Every few years, someone opines that the Western has gone to the last roundup, but then another one pops up and it’s time to re-evaluate the genre again.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reported death of the Western is greatly exaggerated.
Perhaps we can concede, however, that it is certainly rather ill.
The fact is, several Westerns played during 2015, and several more are scheduled for theaters this year, starting today with “Jane Got a Gun.”
But can you name any of last year’s Westerns?
Of course, the most highly publicized was Tarantino’s aforementioned “The Hateful Eight,” which is extremely violent, profane, self-indulgent and, at three hours, way too long — despite a great cast led by Kurt Russell (drowning in facial hair), Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The muddled story is slow to start and then turns into an Agatha Christie-style parlor mystery — if you can picture a gruesomely gory version of “And Then There Were None” set in bleak, snowed-under 19th-century Wyoming.
The other high-profile Western is “The Revenant,” part of the Western subgenre of mountain-man movies, a gorgeous and vividly cinematic film with Leonardo DiCaprio as a highly fictionalized version of real-life trapper Hugh Glass. Early on, his encounter with a bear is gripping and terrifying, and sets the tone for what’s to come as he is left for dead before rising up to exact revenge. It’s harsh but very well-made, and DiCaprio is considered a lock for the best-actor Oscar.
These two were the only major-studio Westerns and the only two that made a significant dent at the box office.
“Slow West,” aptly titled for its snail’s pace, is nonetheless engrossing as it tells of a naive young Scotsman traveling the harsh American wilderness. He falls in with a ruthless bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) as he searches for the woman he loved back home — though she may not feel the same way about him — and some startling violence follows.
In addition, there’s “The Keeping Room,” which played one week at one theater, about three Southern women defending their home from rogue soldiers in the waning days of the Civil War, and “Echoes of War,” another Civil War drama that played in New York and Los Angeles but didn’t make it to Salt Lake theaters.
One thing all of these films have in common is an R rating, primarily for scenes of violence that are over the top — in some cases, way over the top — which makes them less accessible to a wide audience and difficult to recommend.
There were two more 2015 Westerns, both unrated but certainly in R-rated territory, and both skipped a wide theatrical release in favor of online streaming services.
“Bone Tomahawk,” with Kurt Russell again (sporting the same face-swallowing mustache he wore in “The Hateful Eight”), starts out wonderfully — and boasts a terrific performance from Richard Jenkins — before deteriorating in the final third to become a disgustingly gory horror movie with cannibal Indians.
And there was the Western spoof “The Ridiculous 6,” co-written by and starring Adam Sandler, about which the less said, the better.
As for 2016, the aforementioned “Jane Got a Gun” opened today, with Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Joel Edgerton.
“Diablo” is now playing in Los Angeles and New York, with Scott Eastwood stepping into father Clint’s shoes to play a Civil War veteran who sets out to retrieve his kidnapped wife, with Danny Glover, Adam Beach and Walton Goggins.
In February, we’re scheduled to see “The Forsaken,” with Kiefer Sutherland as a gunslinger; his father, Donald, as a reverend; and Demi Moore (where’s she been?) in support.
Another Western titled “Forsaken” (without “The”) is also on the 2016 schedule. It’s a low-budget effort with no stars about a woman setting out alone to make peace with her past before marrying. (No opening date yet.)
In March comes “The Free State of Jones,” with Matthew McConaughey as real-life Civil War soldier Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who pulled together a band of rebels to stand up to the Confederacy by establishing a mixed-race community. Co-stars include Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell.
And in September we get a remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke. (Not exactly Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, but oh well.)
Also coming this year are “Brimstone,” with Dakota Fanning as a falsely accused woman being pursued by a vengeful preacher, played by Guy Pearce; “In a Valley of Violence,” with Ethan Hawke as a drifter after revenge and John Travolta as a marshal; and “By Way of Helena,” with Liam Hemsworth as a Texas Ranger investigating murders in a small frontier town, with William Hurt, Woody Harrelson and Alice Braga.
And guess what? These are also rated R, except for a couple that have not yet received ratings.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise since modern filmmakers often have trouble with period pieces these days, adapting the genre to their own 21st-century anachronistic sensibilities instead of the other way around.
But these days, those who tackle Westerns seem bent on making the violence so graphic, so hellacious onscreen, that it appears they want to see the audience react not with excitement and laughter but with horror and revulsion.
Someone might want to remind them that the Western was once a beloved genre that a wide audience could embrace. And a wider audience means a better box-office return.