While its offerings were far from traditional in 2018, the genre gave fans plenty of interesting releases to get into.
You could say 2018 was a good year for westerns that galloped off the beaten track.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the award-winning filmmakers who gave us the Academy Award-nominated True Grit remake in 2010, returned to the genre with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology of eccentric Wild West tales starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, and Tyne Daly. Twilight star Robert Pattinson got his cowboy on in the seriocomic Damsel as an earnest pioneer who journeys into dangerous territory in pursuit of his sweetheart (Mia Wasikowska) with Butterscotch, a miniature horse that he hopes to offer as a wedding present.
Michael Greyeyes, whom we profiled in our July 2018 issue, brought impressive dignity and substance to his stellar performance as Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead, Susanna White’s engrossing fact-based drama about the relationship between Swiss-born, New York-bred artist Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) and the legendary Lakota chief. John C. Riley and Joaquin Phoenix memorably played the title roles in The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s audaciously offbeat revisionist western (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt) about notorious assassins who unexpectedly get a shot at redemption.
Venturesome moviegoers also had the opportunity to sample films from foreign shores that were heavily influenced by spaghetti westerns and classic American horse operas. Chief among these impressive imports: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, Mouly Surya’s Indonesian drama detailing a rape victim’s bloody campaign of vengeance; Sweet Country, Warwick Thornton’s rugged Australian western about an Aboriginal stockman forced to flee through the outback after shooting a white farmer in self-defense; and Michael Matthews’ Five Fingers for Marseilles, a slow-burn melodrama set in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: While fans of sagebrush sagas may bemoan the relative scarcity of traditional westerns on view at theaters and drive-ins everywhere, the production of such fare specifically designed for home video release continues at a steady pace. Indeed, industry experts seem to agree that if you can keep your budget this side of reasonable and, better still, corral a recognizable character actor (or country music star) who can provide marquee allure by looming large on DVD and Blu-ray packaging and in online trailers, you stand a good chance of turning a profit by selling a sufficient number of what the bean counters call “units.”
“The numbers prove there’s a huge market for westerns,” says indie filmmaker Justin Lee, director of two notable 2018 direct-to-video releases, Any Bullet Will Do and A Reckoning. “People are very dedicated to them. The trouble is there are few westerns that come out these days that seem to have any real heart to them. But if you look at the sales figures at the big box retailers like Walmart and Target and Best Buy — they prove that the people in that particular demographic for westerns, they want a hard copy of something. It’s not enough for them to view it as video on demand. They want to own something.”
Lee — who credits the 2011 – 16 AMC TV series Hell on Wheels as “a huge factor in revitalizing the western” in all media — admits he occasionally wondered whether he had bitten off more than he could chew when he opted to make his directorial debut by filming Any Bullet Will Do on Montana locations “in the dead of winter” on a limited budget. “I now think I could go shoot on any location, and it wouldn’t be as bad as that one was,” he says, adding that, on one especially memorable day during production, “We actually had grizzly bears attack one of our cars.”
Fortunately, Lee had strong support from a dedicated cast and crew — and a touch of star power courtesy of Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davison (Ulzana’s Raid, Longtime Companion), who signed on for a small but key supporting role. “I can’t say enough about Bruce’s performance,” Lee says. “And let me tell you, he came ready to play. I don’t want to say I didn’t have to do much — but, well, I really didn’t have to do much with Bruce. To this day, I’d say those were the best two days I’ve ever spent with an actor.”
Speaking of star power: C&I reader favorite Lou Diamond Phillips, fresh from his multi-season run as Henry Standing Bear on the A&E and Netflix series Longmire, managed to steal every scene that wasn’t bolted to the floor with his gleefully fearsome performance as manic gunslinger Johnny Kane in Big Kill, a hugely entertaining and unabashedly old-fashioned western that received a limited theatrical release in 2018.
The movie, written and directed by costar Scott Martin, tells the story of Philadelphia accountant turned Wild West tenderfoot Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders), who travels to the Arizona mining town of Big Kill to reunite with his brother, owner of a local saloon. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of two roguish gamblers — Jake Logan (Martin) and Travis Parker (Clint Hummel) — who, truth to tell, are much more adept at drawing guns than dealing cards. A good thing, too, because Jim needs all the help he can get when, after arriving in Big Kill with his new buddies, he discovers the town is controlled by the Preacher (Jason Patric), a soft-spoken sociopath who solemnly delivers last rites to his victims, and Johnny Kane (Phillips), who takes unseemly delight in doing the Preacher’s dirty work.
Martin confesses he often found it difficult to maintain a straight face while acting opposite Phillips during on-location filming in New Mexico: “Every one of these line reads he came out with, he did them with such fun and this, like, twinkle in his eye. I’d be sitting there, and there were a couple of times when we’d be in the middle of a scene, shooting, and I have to say: I caught myself being an audience, and just watching him. He was so funny. I’d tell myself, ‘OK, you’ve got to stay in character, you’ve got to stay in it.’ But ... .
“OK, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a big shootout outside, and he comes walking back in and looks at us, points his finger, and goes ‘Boom!’ And then walks back out. And I just started dying laughing. I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ And that smile — I was not expecting that smile all the time. It was just creepy, in all the best ways.”
More serious scariness abounded in Mohawk, a critically acclaimed and relentlessly violent 2018 drama — released simultaneously in theaters and as video on demand — that took a blunt-force approach to dramatizing a bloody conflict between Native Americans and vengeful military renegades against the backdrop of the War of 1812.
“Mohawk writer-director Ted Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix are horror veterans,” Noel Murray of the Los Angeles Times noted in his review, “but their new movie traffics in a different kind of fear — more existential than supernatural. A revenge thriller tied to America’s grim past, Mohawk is a lean, gritty film, which mostly overcomes the limitations of its low budget thanks to focused plotting.”
Alan Scherstuhl of the Village Voice added that Geoghegan and Hendrix “offer viewers about five minutes of calm over the course of the film’s fleet 90. Mostly, this is effective hunt-or-be-hunted stuff, with two Mohawk — a young woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) and man (Justin Rain) — and a sympathetic Brit (Eamon Farren) harried through the woods by an American militia, despite the Mohawk nation’s neutrality in the larger war. Pursued and pursuers continually get the drop on each other, and Geoghegan ... and his micro-budget tech team ace the showdowns, shootouts, and spurts of blood.”
For those who prefer less graphic mayhem and more subtle emotion in their movies, there was The Divide, an uncommonly compelling and emotionally rich modern-day western starring and directed by veteran actor Perry King. Effectively filmed in retro black-and-white and generously filled with affecting performances, the drama was a long-gestating labor of love for King, who shot it on and around his 500-acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Yep, that’s right: In his other life, he’s a cowboy.
“Years ago,” King told C&I, “I did this movie with Sean Young, a TV-movie western called The Cowboy and the Movie Star, which was a nice, sweet film. And I loved the character I played, a guy who was getting divorced and was about to lose his cattle ranch because his ex-wife was going to take it. Sean Young was the movie star. She shows up and they meet each other and she ends up buying the ranch and giving it to him. They have a love affair and blah, blah, blah.
“Well, like I said, I loved making that movie, just loved it. At the time, I owned a house and 40 acres up in this area of Northern California. I met this guy who had been a cowboy his whole life who was running cows on this chunk of land right by my house, 500 acres. He loves westerns, too, and he was the real deal. He taught me lots of stuff about real cowboying, little details that are so important. Like how you pony a horse, how you lead a horse, stuff like that. I put a lot of effort into learning how to be a real cowboy. And at the end of it, I thought, ‘I want to play this part again so badly.’ But I never could get cast in westerns. Because when I was younger, I was so damn pretty. Now, I could get away with it. But back then, people would never cast me in westerns.
“So finally, when this land came up for sale, right contiguous to my house, I thought, OK, screw it. If I can’t play this character again — I’ll just become him. And I did.”
Read more about The Divide and other new westerns at cowboysindians.com.
Photography: courtesy ARCHSTONE PICTURES, Graham Bartholomew/courtesy XYZ Films, Chelsea curtis/courtesy SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT, Russ Rayburn/courtesy Arya Worldwide Entertainment
The 2019 C&I Movie Awards
Announcing the nominees and special recipients for our second annual celebration of the silver screen.
Take Two: To celebrate and encourage the current renaissance of westerns — and to honor films, filmmakers, and film stars of special interest to Cowboys & Indians readers — we’re presenting the second annual edition of the C&I Movie Awards. Or as we like to call them: The Cowboys.
And we want you to be part of the selection process.
Just look at the nominees, choose your favorite in each category, and fill in the ballot at cowboysindians.com. Deadline for submitting your picks will be Tuesday, February 19. Winners will be announced Friday, February 22 — the kickoff day for Oscar weekend.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Sisters Brothers
Woman Walks Ahead
Michael Greyeyes | Woman Walks Ahead
Brady Jandreau | The Rider
Perry King | The Divide
Joaquin Phoenix | The Sisters Brothers
John C. Reilly | The Sisters Brother
Sara Arrington | The Divide
Jessica Chastain | Woman Walks Ahead
Kaniehtiio Horn | Mohawk
Alia Shawkat | Blaze
Marsha Timothy | Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
Sam Elliott | A Star is Born
Jake Gyllenhaal | The Sisters Brothers
Bryan Kaplan | The Divide
Tim Blake Nelson | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Lou Diamond Phillips | Big Kill
Tyne Daly | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Lilly Jandreau | The Rider
Carol Kane | The Sisters Brother
Zoe Kazan | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Rebecca Root | The Sisters Brother
Jacques Audiard | The Sisters Brother
Joel and Ethan Coen | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ethan Hawke | Blaze
Susanna White | Woman Walks Ahead
Chloé Zhao | The Rider
Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain | The Sisters Brother
Joel and Ethan Coen | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ethan Hawke, Sybil Rosen | Blaze
Steven Knight | Woman Walks Ahead
Chloé Zhao | The Rider
Photography: Courtesy annapurna, RICHARD FOREMAN/COURTESY A24,warner Bros./Photofest, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, RICHARD FOREMAN/COURTESY A24, Courtesy Netflix
While selecting nominees for our C&I Movie Awards, we decided to take a cue from the Oscars and Golden Globes and single out some singular achievements with special commendations.
Veteran character actor Lance Henriksen can boast of a résumé with literally hundreds of film and TV credits. But he’s particularly fond of his work in westerns — including The Quick and the Dead, Appaloosa, and Dead Man — and especially proud of his lead performance in Gone Are the Days, an independently produced 2018 drama that he ranks as a career highlight. In the film, he plays Taylon Flynn, an aging ex-gunfighter who’s roused from retirement to save the estranged daughter he abandoned years ago. Call it a star vehicle and you won’t be far off the mark: For the first 15 minutes or so, it’s virtually a one-man show, as Henriksen’s character is all alone on his farm while lost in unpleasant memories. “You know,” Henriksen told C&I, “the best part of this movie is that once you start watching it, it pulls you right to the very end of the film. And it all starts with those opening scenes. Sure, there’s not a bunch of dialogue. But that’s great. Because it’s a movie. It’s not television, where you have to spend the hour blabbering because otherwise there’s nothing that would get done. It’s not a visual medium as much as film.”
At the ripe young age of 70, actor Perry King made his debut as a cinematic multitasker with The Divide — his first effort as a feature film director — in which he stars to perfection as Sam Kincaid, a Northern California rancher who, during the drought of 1976, struggles to remember what is important — and transcend what he cannot forget — as he is gradually diminished by Alzheimer’s disease. Working on both sides of the camera, King brings out the best in a supporting cast that
includes Bryan Kaplan as Luke Higgins, Kincaid’s hired hand, a man yearning to transcend his troubled past; Sara Arrington as Sarah, Kincaid’s estranged daughter, who’s reluctant to admit her feelings toward Sam or Luke; Luke Colombero as C.J., Sarah’s son, who desperately needs a grandfather and a father figure; and Levi Kreis as Tom Cutler, a deceptively charismatic fellow with a score to settle with Sam.
Director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond boldly employ the narrative and visual tropes of classic spaghetti westerns for their compelling tale of revenge and redemption in post-Apartheid South Africa throughout Five Fingers for Marseilles, an impressively effective cross-cultural hybrid. Vuyo Dabula neatly balances the taciturn grit of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and the slow-to-erupt stoicism of Alan Ladd’s Shane as Tau, a notorious outlaw who, after a lengthy prison stretch, tries to turn over a new leaf by renouncing violence and returning to his Eastern Cape hometown. Unfortunately, much like the traditional western gunslingers who earnestly promise to hang up their pistols and return to their roots, Tau finds himself unable to follow through on his good intentions.
After making a major impact with her 2015 debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, her sensitive drama about the bond between Lakota Sioux siblings, Chinese-born and American-educated filmmaker Chloé Zhao firmly established herself as a major up-and-comer with The Rider, an ingenious and engrossing mix of fact and fiction about Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau, a one-time rising star on the rodeo circuit who struggles to find new meaning for his life after his competitive career is cut short by a near-fatal injury. Just how hot a property is Zhao after her sophomore feature earned rave reviews during its 2018 theatrical run? The showbiz trade paper Variety reports she has been signed to direct The Eternals, a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza inspired by the Marvel Comics title.
Chloé Zhao cast Brady Jandreau as Brady Jandreau in The Rider, and the typecasting paid off in spades as the first-time actor delivered an arrestingly complex and sympathetic performance in a role based on his real-life experiences. We asked the former rodeo competitor during an interview for our May/June 2018 issue whether he’ll try to extend his winning streak as a movie star. “Actually,” he replied, “to be honest, I really enjoyed the challenge of acting more than anything else about it. And I’ve always been a person that likes to accept a good challenge.” Like riding a bucking bronco. Or revealing yourself on screen.
Most biographical movies about musicians celebrate either living legends who continue to draw crowds or tragic iconoclasts who died — sometimes decades too soon — before achieving immortality. But Blaze, a leisurely paced and affectingly melancholy drama directed by actor (and two-time C&I cover guy) Ethan Hawke, veers away from convention by offering a respectful yet non-romanticized portrait of Blaze Foley (1949 – 89), a relatively obscure figure in the Outlaw Country movement who remains best known for a handful of songs recorded by other, more famous artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and John Prine. Musician Benjamin Dickey makes a credible and creditable acting debut in the lead role, playing Blaze as an amiably self-destructive teddy bear whose songs and performances often sound like they’re dragged out by the bloody roots from a lost and broken soul.
From the January 2019 issue.