Everyone is all aflutter about the Django Unchained trailer and the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries breaking cable ratings records, so maybe our current sociopolitical/economic climate has sparked something within us that wants to see hardscrabble tales of old America, when retribution and justice were simpler concepts, when you could spot a thief in plain sight, or settle any grievance with exacting certainty.
People speculated that the Western genre would come back in full bloom back when True Grit was such a success last winter, and indeed it seems to have occurred. Of course Quentin Tarantino had the idea for Django long before True Grit came out (maybe he was inspired by 3:10 to Yuma?), but there's a level of excitement for this movie that is perhaps partially owed to the current success of Westerns. Any new Quentin Tarantino is guaranteed to get people talking, but that it's a revenge Western somehow seems extra worthy of conversation in these tricky times.
We also musn't forget AMC's Hell on Wheels, not quite the buzziest show around, but one that at least got a second season renewal. That's more than paranoid spy drama Rubicon could say! And there is the new A&E series Longmire, a modern Western but a Western nonetheless, that premiered this weekend at new heights for the network. So what is stoking this current wave of Western mania, a phenomenon not seen really since Unforgiven came along in the early '90s and gave us The Quick and the Dead, Bad Girls, and other such fare? What could we possibly find exciting about righteous revenge and tales of outlaws or noble loner sheriffs standing up to corrupt power? It's not as if anyone in this country is feeling like a grizzled fringe rebel who needs to do battle against encroachers and venal men of power to protect their kin. That's not the mood of the country at all right now!
Obviously that doesn't mean that all Americans are currently stewing at home, secretly wishing they could do pistol duels in the streets (some are, though — sigh, some are), it's just that some visceral anger at the state of things is maybe soothed by watching these hard-boiled fantasies play out. And maybe, in most cases anyway, the fantasy needs a period gloss — modern Madoff revenge flick Tower Heist was a bust maybe because it was too on-the-nose. But a Western, well that's steeped in tradition and formula that cushions the immediacy of the message.
Or, heh, it's possible that we're just getting sick of vampire movies or robot movies or wizard movies or whatever else, so we're returning to an oldie-but-a-goodie format. It's not like Westerns ever really died out, the genre just has occasional spikes of popularity and we're in one right now. And we're glad for it. Westerns are fun! Even when, or maybe especially when, they're being all frowny and grizzled and serious. Django Unchained doesn't exactly look serious, but there are certainly some frowns and some grizzle on display. And, y'know, some grit, too.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.