What the Western Means Now

The Rover and forthcoming throwbacks to the John Wayne era may not dominate the box office, but they speak to American anxieties in a distinctly modern way.

In recent years, the cowboy has been replaced by the superhero as the most common expression of American values in blockbuster filmmaking. But the decline of the western—the genre that dominated cinema's first half-century—began long before the Marvel era. In the golden age of spurs-and-saddles films, between 1940 and 1960, up to 140 westerns were released per year. By the turn of the century, that was a good number for an entire decade. There were only 148 westerns made in the 1990s, and 142 in the 2000s.

But cowboys, it seems, are trying to mount a comeback. So far, it’s not going well: The Lone Ranger flopped spectacularly a summer ago, and last month, Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West opened to tepid reviews and middling box office. Still, the fact that major studios bankrolled these films indicates at least some amount of faith in the genre. And that faith, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be flagging.

The Homesman, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, won rave reviews at Cannes and will see release later this year; the film has been called an “inverse western” for its focus on women and rejection of the alpha-male cowboy stereotype. 2015 will bring at least two highly-anticipated genre entries: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (his last film, Django Unchained, was the rare new western to succeed commercially and critically), and Jane Got a Gun, starring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor.

To try and understand the western’s return, it’s important to understand why it left in the first place. There are many theories out there, but a lot of film critics attribute the decline of the western to the Vietnam War. Most films of the genre are essentially war pictures, detailing combat between American Indians and frontiersmen. J. Hoberman wrote that “save for a handful of releases, the western itself has remained defunct since the fall of Saigon,” noting that the ugliness of the conflict rendered the often blindly patriotic tone of the western obsolete. Vietnam-era westerns such as Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson reflected this revision of the American character by showing Native Americans to be sympathetic and U.S. military officials (like General Custer) to be fools, but the trend did not last long.

The underlying subject of nearly every western is the tension that erupts when an ascending civilization comes into conflict with the savage wilderness. Whether it is a sheriff chasing an outlaw or a homesteader fighting off an Indian attack, classical westerns depict an America trying to balance its frontier spirit with the need for manmade justice and order. Films like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and High Noon show the difficult process of extending a young nation into new territory. Perhaps that’s why westerns resonate less and less: Precious few among us would still call America a country on the rise.

Still, a new western from an unlikely source may hold the key to the genre’s future. The Rover, an Australian crime thriller by David Michod (Animal Kingdom) trades an expanding civilization for one in decline. It could be called a “post-western.” Set 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film follows Eric, a stoic drifter (Guy Pearce) who roams the desolate Outback on a mission to retrieve his car from three thieves who have stolen it after a heist gone wrong. He teams up with Rey (Robert Pattinson), the mentally disabled brother of one of the thieves, who knows where the crew is headed.

As we follow their journey, we see that the remains of 21st-century civilization, even in Australia, eerily resembles the Old West. Scenes take place in a saloon, a general store, and a brothel. The moral landscape looks familiar, too. People kill with startling casualness. Men mistreat women and children. Even our hero—a classical western figure, the mysterious loner with nothing left to lose—murders without hesitation. Nothing seems to matter to anybody except for their own survival.

But Eric does care about one thing. His car. It’s not clear for most of the film’s runtime why he does, but that’s okay. “It’s a silly thing to care about in a world like this,” one character tells him, but, of course, that’s the point. He has chosen to care about the car just to care about something. It is a remnant of the person he was when civilization as we know it still existed. In this way, The Rover shows how the western can have utility in our modern era: by exploring the tension that arises when civilization recedes and man must return to a world ruled by the laws of nature. As we in the audience struggle with major existential questions about our future on the planet—climate change, antibiotic overuse, loose nukes—the “post-western” can offer us a cathartic space to look for answers.

The Rover is an outlier among the westerns planned for release in the next couple years. None of them are set in the future or deal explicitly with post-apocalyptic themes, and it is hard to imagine any of them will be quite as bleak. But even so, this small cowboy resurgence highlights what's changed since John Wayne's heyday. By definition a more naturalistic genre than the fantastic, CGI-laden universe of superheroes and other contemporary action films, today's westerns can't help but remind of human limits: Unlike Clark Kent, even the toughest cowboy can be brought down by a bullet or two. These films rebuke the idea that people always dominate their environment, instead showing that in the the wild, men and women are anything but super-powered.