Though it's been pronounced dead so often and for so many years, the western lived again in 2007, sprouting like a gnarly weed through a cracked desert shelf. These new-millennium westerns, however, are a little tougher, a little wiser, and more prone to fits of sadness and moments of darkness.
It is said that most, if not all, American presidents since 1952 have screened High Noon (1952), one of the old model westerns, at the White House, and some have claimed it as their favorite movie. Our current cowboy president probably loves it more than all of his predecessors did, and it's as likely as not that he watched it at least once during the past 12 months. No doubt he, like the other commanders in chief, saw himself in the movie, alone and standing strong against terrible odds with no help at all from cowards and city-bred folk.
Fifty years ago Delmer Daves directed the original 3:10 to Yuma very much in the mode of High Noon, with a single-minded hero, Dan Evans, standing up for a purpose against all reason and despite everyone urging him to quit. He will, come hell or high water, transport the bandit Ben Wade to the title train on time. James Mangold's new remake sticks close to the original but also departs in significant ways. This time a third character figures prominently in the action, Ben Wade's right-hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), a pale, small fellow with a sadistic swagger and a penchant for exploding into wildly inappropriate violence.
It's fairly easy to read Charlie's devotion to his boss (Russell Crowe) as a kind of desperate man love. It's Charlie who makes the film's ending something quite different from the original's hopeful turn. Mangold's skillful storytelling means it's possible to enjoy the film purely on the level of a bread-and-butter western, but he also quietly suggests the United States' headfirst march into the quagmire of Iraq.
Similarly, Jesse James has graced all kinds of classic westerns, but never quite like in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This James is no longer a hero of the people fighting greedy railroad men but now merely a lost celebrity both fascinated by the limelight and weary of its glare. The film deliberately turns up its nose at gunplay and action and instead focuses on the rotting final months of the legend's life, when the cancerous Ford (a perfectly sniveling Casey Affleck) enters. It plays out like a long, slow chess game, easing through its 160 minutes with a kind of watchful caution.
A typical scene has James (Brad Pitt) sizing up his colleagues from across a table, reading their fears and desires through their eyes and twitches. When the title moment comes, it plays like a transfer of fates, with James deliberately passing on the mantle to his young admirer. But the mantle quickly strangles, and Ford spends the rest of his days forever attached to and defined by that one moment, hated and hounded. This is a western that arrives in David Lynchian territory after having passed through Terrence Malick land, and the cowboy's heroism and self-reliance have dried up along the way.
If Yuma and Jesse James are more comfortable for being based in the past, then No Country for Old Men is something a good deal darker: it's a modern-day western masterpiece, set in the 1980s, with horses and cowboy hats. It pries open the end of the West and finds despair. The hunter (Josh Brolin) and the killer (Javier Bardem) are both cynical products of the Vietnam War, relentless in their thinking and planning and unable to trust or rest. The sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) is the linchpin, the old man whose country no longer belongs to him and who can't comprehend what happened to it.