The Year of the Alternative Western?

Note: These musings contain mild spoilers for El Ardor (The Burning).

It’s the darndest thing.

I’ve just watched Gael García Bernal’s latest film El Ardor. It’s set in the Argentinian rainforest but towards the end I found myself thinking of two other films I’d seen recently – Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender, and The Salvation, with beautiful Mads Mikkelsen.

It took a second or two to figure out why, but then the penny dropped.

In the past two months, I’ve seen three films that are westerns. But westerns with a twist.

The Salvation‘s plot is fairly standard revenge western fare, but it focuses heavily on Scandinavian immigrant families, with the bad guys being the longer-standing settlers with the accents we would now recognise as American, but nary a glimpse of a Native American.

Slow West is the bounty-hunter western, and this too is very much the view of the outsider. It’s the combined work of Scottish director John Maclean, Irish/German Fassbender, Australians Ben Mendelsohn and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and was shot in New Zealand. During the trek we also come across immigrants from other places, which all highlight the fact that at this period in time, no-one is actually American, everyone is a settler. This film does briefly feature a Native American character, and there is mention of how the colonisation of their lands affected their situation.

And then there’s El Ardor – not strictly a western, but with a very definite shoot-out denouement and Sergio Leone-style camera and sound. The bad guys are, yet again, incomers trying to take land from the natives or settlers who have worked the land for a long time, but it’s only in the last third that it begins to feel like a western.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of westerns, and even with these three films, the pull to see them was the actors not the plot.

So what is it about alternative westerns in 2015 – or am I imagining things? Is it a genre that’s making a comeback? Is there something about the western that suddenly has relevance? And if so, what am I missing? Don’t forget Quentin Tarantino’s next film The Hateful Eight is also a western …

Edit: see also Jauja (31/7/15)

Anyway, here’s an excuse to look at Mads Mikkelsen again.

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