Due to a smorgasbord of interesting flicks during the holiday season of 2000 and a lack of them in the following month (the dumping ground that is January), we’ve decided to spend this month tracking back to some of the important holiday releases at the end of the millennium. Here, guest writer Erik Jaccard accomplishes no less than an impressively comprehensive critical examination of Cormac McCarthy and the American western. We think it’s spectacular. Enjoy.

I took a colossal risk in asking, and then agreeing to review Billy Bob Thornton’s much maligned 2000 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel All the Pretty Horses.  For one, I’d only ever read the book — and I loved it.  Secondly, as one with a penchant for film and film lore, I was well aware of the epic struggle between director Billy Bob Thornton and his studio (Miramax) over the final length of the film.  Finally, and in no way unrelated to point number two, I’d heard it kind of sucked.  So I approached the task as one prepared for the worst but hoping for the best, willing to believe in the source material and, honestly, buoyed by the irrational dream provided by the Coen Brothers’ marvelously understated adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.  But before I get into my review of the film itself, I wanted to spend a little time talking about the western as a genre.

One wonders precisely what about Westerns so fascinates Americans.   The sheer number of western or western-esque films I’m able to recall off the top of my head from my own lifetime boggles the mind (everything from The Wild Bunch to The Quick and the Dead, True Grit to Tombstone, and Blazing Saddles to City Slickers and Shanghai Noon).  At this point, one wonders whether anything new can possibly be said about the west, the frontier, coonskin caps, bandits, outlaws, gunfights, women in print cotton dresses silhouetted against the setting sun, scalping, circled wagons, pass crossings, river crossings, cowboy sexuality crossings, or the extermination of the buffalo and the construction of the railroad.  And it’s easy to get lost in this carnival of kitsch and detail while forgetting just how pivotal a role the western has played as a site of national cultural and political contestation, both in America and abroad. However, seeing that I’ve neither the time nor the space to undertake a full analysis of the ten-gallon cultural dynamo that is the western genre, I’ll have to settle for some educated guesses and a little bit of casual research.

So what is it about the western that Hollywood and the American public finds so captivating?  I can offer only educated guesses.  Perhaps it has to do with the way westerns of a certain ilk tend to romanticize that plucky frontier spirit of the westward roving pioneers. One would think this consolation might have become important at the very moment when the promise and opportunity of the frontier slipped quietly into history, and that it perhaps remained so.  (Of course, history never simply slips away and Americans have found new deserts in which to lose themselves.)  Or maybe it’s the rugged individualism, independence, and ingenuity of the roving loner that fascinates citizens weaned on the fiery ‘live free or die’ rhetoric of classical liberal humanism.  Possibly it’s the way that Westerns, whether overtly or subconsciously, legitimize the popular textbook construction of the national self, its expansion across and conquest of the land, and the manifest fulfillment of its own violent and chaotic destiny.  In any case, this humble reviewer is willing to venture a hypothesis: if the western as traditionally conceived (say, pre-1960s) is in fact a cultural artifact of national self-imagining, might it act like a barometer through which to measure peaks, valleys, and challenges to that dominant definition of self?

In working towards a tentative and partial answer to this question, I glanced over the number of westerns released since the turn of the twentieth century, hoping to find a spike or two corresponding to times of obvious political and social strife.  Not surprisingly, the stirrup and saddle flicks grow in popularity from the silent films of the early twentieth century (of which 1903’s The Great Train Robbery is a notable example) through Hollywood’s Golden Age and on through the 1940’s.  But then, between the years of 1950 and 1954, there is an exponential spike in the popularity of the western.  In the course of that brief five year period alone, while the hunt for commies raged through the early years of the Cold War, witch hunts, blacklisting, and the tribunals of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, there were no fewer than THREE HUNDRED FIFTY westerns produced and consumed in America and abroad (but mostly in America — thank you, Wikipedia).  THREE HUNDRED FIFTY!  Sure, some of this can be attributed to a general postwar boom in all industries, and especially ones as socially cohesive and money-making as the cinema. However, it would take a lot of convincing to persuade me that the boom in westerns during the early ‘50s didn’t correspond to a need on the part of the general public to either escape to a mythical, vanished past, or else use the genre’s traditional characteristics as a lens through which to interpret their present.  Classical westerns can be useful in this respect.  They clearly demarcate the ‘good’ guys from the bad while reinforcing the legitimacy of American claims to land, nation, and cultural (not to mention ideological) superiority.

Now, I realize that I’m painting an argument here with a brush the size of a fourteen-hand thoroughbred.  You might say that not all westerns fit the model I’ve outlined, which is to say that not all of them are overtly, clunkily heroic or nationalist, and you would be right.  In fact, at least part of what results from the gargantuan barrage of one-dimensional western-themed films in the 50’s is the rise of the ‘gritty’ western, the film concerned with illustrating more fully the dark, chaotic, violent, even evil side of the west.    We should also consider the generally postmodern turn towards parody in quasi-westerns like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, which pointedly (and hilariously) directs its viewers to the inherent constructedness of the western as a product.  For example, as its satirical plot crashes to a finish, the entire cast brawls its way through the walls of its studio and spills over into adjacent lots where other versions of history are similarly under construction. In any case, what concerns us here is the former category — the gritty, almost revisionist western — where McCarthy’s westerns tends to fall, and where All the Pretty Horses stakes its claim to the ever-growing discussion about what the West is, what it means to us, and how we use it and bend it to meet our own needs.

Given the critical context I’ve outlined above, it seems salient to start off by acknowledging that McCarthy’s ‘West’ is one that repeatedly transcends the boundaries of the national. The boundedness and cultural inviolability of natural boundaries both physical and culture give way under the constant back and forth migration of humans from territories we realize are only fleetingly to be known as ‘The United States of America’ or ‘Mexico’.  The so-called ‘national’ characters which contest these lands enter the drama of the West not as main players in an unfolding history, but only as the next group to pass through, and only one among many.   In this sense, McCarthy inherently de-naturalizes the role of the nation, foregrounding its contingency and particularly its dependence on modern conception of space and time.

The space of the West remains a dark, brooding presence embedded in deep, almost circular time, where human life pales in comparison with the ancient terrain across which its drama plays out.  While reading through his Border Trilogy a few years back (of which All the Pretty Horses is the first installment), I was constantly struck the way the West functions in his fictional world as a character of its own, replete with a crisp, visceral materiality that works an ominous and foreboding will on those who attempt to cross, conquer, or understand it.  It is the inversion of liberal humanist cosmology.  The land is not a place to be improved or destroyed, and whatever progress is made upon it remains a grain of sand in, well, a desert.  For McCarthy, the West is not a pleasant new land awaiting settlers out to create new worlds.  No, McCarthy’s West is old, it’s seen everything, and it doesn’t care whether you live or die, much less about the sacrosanct tenets of national belonging.

But it’s time for me to end my lengthy digression and get to the film.  So let me start by admitting that I found it extremely sub-par.  It’s a stylistically poor adaptation of what is a complex and engaging (if somewhat overwrought) narrative.  Where McCarthy challenges received notions of what a western is and should say, Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation reverses any critical insight into the genre’s particular social and ideological content.  What remains is a depressingly paced, hideously cut and pasted collage of desert scenery, drawling cowboys, and young love.  Now, as I mentioned in starting, I’m aware of the battles that went on behind the scenes before the film could even be fully financed, produced, edited, distributed, and released.  I know that somewhere out there is a three and a half hour director’s cut of the film that apparently can’t be released because of a dispute with the original score composer.  I know that the studio folk probably had an axe to grind with Thornton over his earlier refusal to cut down his otherwise award-nominated Sling Blade.  But owing to the fact that none of us outsiders have yet to set eyes on Thornton’s original master version, we have no way of knowing what had to be cut in order to turn a complex meditation on time, history, and space into a piece of western kitsch which confusingly renaturalizes much of that which the novel would seem to challenge.

What remains unfolds like a dark, quirky, but nonetheless generic tale of unrequited love and disillusionment.  John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) is a sixteen year-old son of Texas rancher who has been forced off the family land following the death of his rancher grandfather. Cole would like nothing more than to live on the land, work a ranch, and just be.  But in mid-20th century Texas ranching is out and big oil money is in.  With his father disillusioned and dying of cancer and his mother remarried and distant, he decides to light off to Mexico with his best friend, Lacy Rawlins (Henry Thomas) in search of the last of the remaining ‘real’ ranches.  On the way to Mexico they pick up an itinerant thirteen year-old named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), who turns out to a horse thief.  Cole and Rawlins separate from Blevins and eventually find work on a huge Mexican ranch, where Cole is singled out by the owner for his knowledge of, and ability to work with horses.  Along the way he sparks up a romance with the owner’s young daughter, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz).  Though warned by her aunt not to pursue her, Cole does anyway and the two crazy kids become lovers.  Long story short, Cole goes on to learn that love hurts, loyalty  is all you’ve got in this crazy, messed-up world, and  even the best laid plans often go awry.

It’s an easy plot to process, partly because it is one we are so familiar with.  In fact, once the love story takes over (supplanting the original urge to seek out greener pastures and live simply on the land), the film is reduced to the tension between whether or not Cole will survive once he is thrust into the barbaric flipside of his pastoral dreams, and more importantly whether or not he will get the girl.  The character of the land itself is transmuted into mere scenery landscaping the drama and the score turns towards a Bonanza-like anthem of frontier gallantry.  In other words, the predominate mode of understanding the story, the land, and its history emerges through kitsch, through commodity.  The film allows us to continue thinking about the west as distant, mythical place, removed from our experience of the world in any respect other than that it tends to remind us that the world can be a nasty place.  Even this conclusion falls flat when one realizes that it is only the obverse to the plot’s alternative outcome, in which things turn out all right, bad guys are vanquished and true love reigns.  Both are simply types of story to be consumed.  They allow the viewer to watch and react in terms of a satisfaction (I like movies with happy endings!  No, I like movies that tell you how it really is!) entirely dependent on empty choice, preference, and product.  It brings us back to the video store of old, with its clearly marked genre categories laid out like cereal brands at the local supermarket.

I’m being crotchety and perhaps more than a little unreasonable here, and I know that.  I’ve let my analysis of this film turn into a polemic about film in general, and for that I apologize.  I’m not immune to film as mindless entertainment and I’m perhaps misrepresenting myself in holding this one particular creation to standards I wouldn’t normally apply to 80% of my film-watching life.  But I suppose the point to be made, then, is that you would just as well off picking a dark western, any dark western, as you would be spending two hours watching All the Pretty Horses.  In fact, you would be just as well off re-watching Blazing Saddles, which at least says something about how we create living myths out of sloppy history through easily digestible product.  Otherwise, you might as well get thee to your nearest bookseller, pick up the All the Pretty Horses in its novel form (yet another product), and figure out just where you stand in the grand scheme of things.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • Lucas Black is the only suitably cast major character in the entire film.  Perhaps the Jefe on the ranch in Mexico as well, as he tends to exude a kind of cool, collected businessmen/ranch owner composure.  But Damon, while appropriately boyish in his post-Good Will Hunting days, never quite captures Cole’s well-intentioned but inexperienced heroism, preferring to play the intermittent horror of the story off with a mix between bumbling farm boy bashfulness and Jason Bourne ingenuity.   I’ve never really appreciated Penelope Cruz in English-speaking roles, so the less said about her the better.
  • Love the brief cameo with Sam Shepherd, who I think always lends authority figures an extra element of class.  I have no reason for thinking this.  I just like Sam Shepherd.  What we’re really missing is Sam Elliott.
  • Seeing that the source material has been somewhat — no, completely — mangled by this edit of the film, I suppose the gratuitous lasso shots, stampeding horses (I mean, you have to, right?), and Bonanza score isn’t entirely unexpected.  There is probably a way to link a fuller, more hopeful score with the sweeter, more innocent aspects of Cole’s experience south of the border, but at the same time, my experience with this book, and with The Border Trilogy in general, makes me yearn form a minimalist, string and soundscape-based score a la The Proposition.
  • Lucas Black, though from the deep South, always seems to get cast as the prototypical ‘Texan’ boy and plays it with such exuberant charm that, if ever I see a Texan, I kind of always want it to be him.
  • I was pleased not to see Henry Thomas die horrifically in this film.  He gets brutally stabbed, yes, but it’s nothing compared to his death by mustard gas/machine gun in Legends of the Fall or the way he meets his vile mortality via spike impalement in Gangs of New York.
  • Is it me, or does the Mexican police captain actually sound like a Jersey mafia thug?
  • I was hoping to avoid gratuitous shots of galloping horses reminiscent of old Budweiser advertisements.  Yet there they are.