The Western Rides Again

illustration of silhouetted man with a gun in a cowboy hat
Illustration by John Gall; Searchlight Pictures

This article was published online on April 19, 2021.

I grew up in San Diego, which resembles the backdrop of High Noon or Unforgiven not at all but is extremely west, geographically speaking. Maybe this is what disposed me to feel that the Western as a film genre was trite and foolish, dangerously sentimental about horizons and stoicism and men shooting each other for no good reason. I know these are fighting words. But the notion of the western frontier offering limitless opportunity to colonize—framed as limitless freedom, resources, and promise of transformation—is less attractive when you are raised at its terminus. “San Diego is the extreme southwest town of the United States; and since our real westward expansion has come to a standstill, it has become a veritable jumping-off place,” Edmund Wilson wrote in a 1931 essay about the strangely high rate of suicides in the city at that time.

You seem to see the last blind feeble futile effervescence of the great burst of the American adventure. Here this people, so long told to “go West” to escape from poverty, ill health, maladjustment, industrialism and oppression, discover that, having come West, their problems and diseases still remain and that there is no further to go.

Wilson describes San Diego as the place where manifest destiny, the animating dream of the Western, curdles; here the endless land ends and there are no more American horizons on which to pin hopes or ambition—only high, unstable cliffs at the ocean’s edge to hurl yourself off.

I love where I am from, and I love the landscapes of the American West in general—and so I am skeptical of the mythos of the American West, which has often been used as an excuse to annihilate the land itself, and the people living on it. Almost a decade ago, I drove from San Diego up to Owens Valley, in Inyo County, which was where many classic Westerns of the 20th century, including Hopalong Cassidy, Westward Ho, and the original Lone Ranger film, were shot. (The proprietor of the motel I stayed in proudly told me that his grandmother had been John Wayne’s local girl of choice.) In the early 1900s, California drained Owens Lake to supply water to Los Angeles, so thoroughly desiccating the area’s lush environment that it became a giant dust bowl. Arsenic-laced dust storms howled through. This reality—people romancing the land while laying waste to it—soured me on the Western, which seemed to ennoble or obscure that devastation. This paradox “is the West yesterday, today, and forever,” the historian Bernard DeVoto wrote in his 1947 essay “The West Against Itself,” which took aim at industries, like mining, that depended on the area’s natural resources while plundering them. “It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.”

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So my ears perked up when, maybe two-thirds of the way through watching Chloé Zhao’s third film, Nomadland, my partner, sitting next to me on the couch, suddenly said aloud, as if in recognition, “Oh, right! The Western is always about suicide.”

You might not immediately think of Nomadland as a Western: Zhao supplies no horses, no guns, no cattle, no holdups. The film’s setting is the present day, and instead of John Wayne there is Frances McDormand playing Fern, a woman who has lost her husband, her job, and her home. She never had children, and the town where she lived with her husband before he died has vanished, shriveled to nothing after the mining factory where she worked closed. Now she lives in a white van she has named “Vanguard,” driving around the West to wherever jobs are available: at campgrounds, in an Amazon warehouse, on a farm during harvest season. Fern has unintentionally joined a growing subculture: “workampers,” or people whose economic circumstances have deteriorated such that they lead itinerant lives, following temporary work. According to the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder on which the film is based, these transient “nomads,” as they call themselves, likely number in the thousands. (Except for McDormand and David Strathairn, the nomads in Nomadland are played by people genuinely living that life.) A lot of them are of retirement age, like Fern—people who were employed by industries that collapsed and didn’t rebound, and whose savings evaporated in the financial crash of 2008.

Nomadland, with its scenes of Amazon-warehouse work and RVs and aging women in sandals, is not the archetypal cowboy movie. Nor does it subscribe to the idea of the West as a vast, exploitable space. The land Fern wanders has been ravaged by now-depleted manufacturing and extraction industries, and is ruled by corporations that plunder a new endless resource: cheap labor. And yet Fern is a cowboy par excellence, an arch and solitary figure, a straight-backed and stiff-legged protagonist driven from the safety of “civilization” toward a different kind of existence, one set against the dusty expanse of the American West. She wears the hell out of a men’s coat, smoking cigarettes broodily in the sunset.

a woman leaning out of a van to talk to another woman and a woman standing by a van to look out over a desert landscape at sunset
Top: In addition to the actor Frances McDormand, Chloé Zhao works in Nomadland with a cast that includes people actually living the nomad life. Bottom: McDormand’s character, Fern, drives around the West in a van that she has named “Vanguard,” taking jobs where she can find them. (Joshua James Richards / Searchlight Pictures)

Zhao, whose debut film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, came out in 2015, is part of a convergence of auteurs who are redrawing the boundaries of the genre and tapping into an anti-triumphalist impulse that has hovered somewhere beneath its surface. Kelly Reichardt (whose First Cow, released last year, followed Certain Women and Meek’s Cutoff ) and Debra Granik (her most recent film, 2018’s Leave No Trace, was preceded by Stray Dog and Winter’s Bone) have been at work for more than a decade. Anna Kerrigan’s first full-length feature, Cowboys, was released this year. Each has different interests and signatures: Reichardt has made period Westerns, while the others have turned to contemporary settings. Zhao works almost exclusively with nonactors. Granik’s first experimentation with the genre’s conventions was set in the Ozarks, not usually a terrain included in the Western, and her recent films portray veterans with PTSD. Kerrigan’s debut features one trans protagonist and another struggling with mental illness. But as this quartet of women filmmakers make new contributions to a very old genre, they’re united by an interest in probing the isolation and alienation of people on the American “frontier”—and in critiquing the frontier illusion itself, the fantasy that fleeing toward the next horizon offers riches as well as freedom from the waste and damage left behind.

As Quentin Tarantino remarked in 2013, “One of the things that’s interesting about Westerns in particular is there’s no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made or the morals and the feelings of Americans” so well. “Westerns are always a magnifying glass.” (His own film Django Unchained—featuring a formerly enslaved Black cowboy—had just stirred up racial controversy.) Behind these new films lies a recent interest in scrutinizing the colonial vision of the American West, especially the adversarial attitude driving it—cowboys versus Indians, man versus nature. At the heart of the allegory of the frontier, the mid-century film critic Jim Kitses suggested, was a stark conflict between wilderness and civilization that encompassed a host of other values seen as battling it out in the nation’s expansionist mission. “The Wilderness” was associated with individualism and supposedly masculine values like freedom, purity, honor, integrity, solipsism, and brutality, he wrote. “Civilization” represented the safety of society (culture, humanity, institutions, refinement, “the feminine”) as well as its failures and disappointments (corruption, compromise, restriction). Westerns dramatized the tension between these two polarized worlds.

Yet a hallmark of the genre at its best has been a recurrent need to complicate these oppositions—above all in the figure of the cowboy, who has tended to subtly betray the illogic of this binary mentality. Often on the run from the injustices or constraints of society, he was the paradigmatic masculine hero and “conqueror” of the wilderness; at the same time, his presence in the landscape spelled the arrival of the society he mistrusted. This was his predicament: striving for absolute rugged individualism, while entangled in the civilization that plagued or misunderstood him.

3 black and white photos: the Lone Ranger in a black face mask; a man on a horse bending to talk to a woman standing beside him; three men riding horses into a Western town
Top: The Lone Ranger, played by Clayton Moore in the 1956 feature film as well as in the television series, has lost almost everyone close to him. Middle: The title character in Shane (1953) comes to the aid of homesteaders, but then resumes his solitary life. Bottom: In High Noon, a retiring marshal stubbornly insists on facing a group of outlaws alone. (Screen Prod / Photononstop / Alamy; Sunset Boulevard / Corbis / Getty; Moviestore Collection / Alamy)

These recent entries into the canon reflect a desire to more explicitly question the wisdom of pitting wilderness against civilization, individual against community, masculine against feminine. The far-from-triumphant results of manifest destiny have become ever more obvious: the displacement or extermination of Native populations, the devastation of ecosystems, the faltering of the industries that promised prosperity. The films’ directors examine the consequences, and experiment with alternatives. They ask whether a cowboy who isn’t solitary, isn’t brutal, isn’t fatalistic, isn’t hungering for the next horizon, isn’t even male might do less damage—and might survive.

As Nomadland demonstrates, the conventions of the Western lend themselves well to evoking present-day alienation. Zhao’s nomads—like members of other outcast subcultures in American history—wander the landscape of the West because they have nowhere else to go. Yet they recast (or reclaim) that wandering as freedom, self-reliance, and self-knowledge—an opportunity to achieve a purer, less mediated experience of the natural world than they had back in their old houses or jobs. Like the Lone Ranger, Fern is deeply isolated, which is partly because of her circumstances (the Lone Ranger, too, had lost almost everyone close to him) but also seems innate to her personality. When offered the opportunity to be in a relationship with a kind man (Strathairn), she declines, uncomfortable with intimacy and domesticity. When her sister invites her to stay, she demurs, itching to be back on the road. “It’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting,” her sister says, hurt. In classic cowboy fashion, Fern can only move forward, toward the unknown horizon, even when turning back or staying put would raise her odds of survival.

Death haunts the film. At various points, the danger looms that Fern will freeze to death while sleeping in her camper in extreme cold; be attacked by people at rest stops; break down in the middle of nowhere and die of exposure or dehydration. She does in fact get a flat tire in the Arizona desert right after one of the annual gatherings of van-living nomads, on terrain where she’s unlikely to encounter anyone else. She’s lucky, though: One last nomad has yet to depart, a woman named Swankie, who grumpily drives her to town and scolds her. “You can die out here. You’re out in the wilderness, far away from anybody. You can die out here, don’t you understand that?” Swankie herself carries a book by Jack Kevorkian (“Dr. Death”) as insurance; she has terminal cancer, but intends to take her life before being forced to go back “indoors.”

We are acutely aware that Fern may, in some real sense, wish to die. At the very least, the likelihood of violence or death on the road seems preferable to what is behind her—a lost beloved, the home they shared now hollowed out and sitting silently in a whole town of abandoned houses. Even the pitying offers of help from former friends propel Fern toward what looks like the bleakest fate.

This is the trope of the Western to which my partner was referring. At the genre’s darkest, cowboys are driven to violence, alienation, isolation, and even a kind of nihilism. The cowboy often knows that he must die, or is fleeing into the frontier void from something equally annihilating. Think of Butch and Sundance in flight, an inescapable bounty on their heads. They hurl themselves off a cliff, rob and kill from Wyoming all the way to Bolivia, and then, once caught, step with grim cheer in front of a firing line in the movie’s final frame. Or think of Thelma and Louise on the run from law enforcement, sure they will be convicted of murder for shooting Thelma’s attempted rapist. Finally cornered, they decide to “keep going,” sailing their Ford Thunderbird straight over the precipice into the Grand Canyon.

When he is not enforcing some self-devised sense of “law” over the “wilderness,” the cowboy is frequently an outlaw, running not only from death in the abstract but from a death sentence that is mandated and will be enforced by an unjust or uncomprehending “society.” Anything is possible—and any violence justifiable—for this misunderstood person with no connections to tether him and nothing left to lose. Whether the Lone Ranger, Shane, or William Munny in Unforgiven, the cowboy enacts that alienation and makes it thrilling, heroic—the moral stance of a maverick. But this feature of the genre isn’t necessarily darkly heroic; sometimes it’s simply dark, and tragic, a razor’s edge that Nomadland traces. If the Western, writ large, tells the story of a whole country driving itself to a “jumping-off place”—socially, economically, environmentally, culturally—its current practitioners raise the question of whether it’s too late to back away.

In different ways, Reichardt, Granik, and Kerrigan make this violent alienation a primary subject—and find within the form of the Western itself opportunities for intervention and repair. In Cowboys, Kerrigan casts the classic on-the-run tale in contemporary terms: Joe is an 11-year-old transgender boy living in western Montana whose mother insists that he keep his hair long, wear hyperfeminine clothing, and play like the “other little girls.” Cowboys, to him, are the pinnacle of masculinity, and he sneaks into flannel shirts, blue jeans, belts with shiny buckles, and boots every chance he gets, only to be punished for it. Feeling as if he can’t survive much longer if forced to live as a girl, he asks for help from his father, who is estranged from Joe’s mother and coming to terms with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They take off into the forests of Montana (on a white horse, no less), hoping that if they can make it to Canada, Joe can live as he must—as he is.

The existential threat that Joe is running from feels acute—and the notion that he might be able to live with integrity and truth only outside and cut off from others is compelling. The terrain the pair ride through is breathtaking. And yet Joe’s turn as a lone ranger isn’t freeing; it’s bloody and terrifying. His father, whose medication is swept away in some rapids (in which Joe nearly drowns), grows manic and grandiose. Joe accidentally shoots someone. Eventually they are the subject of a manhunt so large, it seems clear that father and son will die if they press onward. Joe winds up clutching a rifle, surrounded by snipers on all sides, a frail child exposed in an indifferent landscape. His choice is clear, and classic: put down the gun and step back from the brink—or jump off. Unlike Butch and Sundance, he isn’t glib or accepting; he’s traumatized.

In Leave No Trace, Granik also portrays a father and child who have uneasy relationships to society. Will is a veteran with PTSD who can no longer stand living in civilization. Instead, he camps in remote areas of Oregon’s forests with his 13-year-old daughter. Like Cowboys, the film explores the fallout of failed community—broken trust between an individual and the society that made him; broken trust between a struggling parent and a lonely child; a society’s skepticism toward anyone who rejects it; a longing for rootedness overridden by trauma. When Tom, Will’s daughter, begs him to stay in the small trailer community where they’ve found friendship and shelter, his refusal is presented not as heroic or noble, but as deeply tragic. Even if it ruptures their relationship, he has to keep going.

Reichardt, too, is drawn to uncovering the vulnerability buried within the Western. Her 2010 film, Meek’s Cutoff, depicts the pioneer journey west in the 1840s as anything but a tale of excitement, romance, and individualism; instead, it is a collective, near-fatal, and profoundly monotonous undertaking. It features an ensemble cast—three couples are traveling together for protection. The movie mostly shows them silently walking next to their oxen, for miles and miles, punctuated by scenes of the women lighting fires, beating laundry, and knitting. The cowboy in the movie, Meek, is a guide who claims he can get them safely to their destination in Oregon, and bluffs and brags about his solitary mastery of the terrain and his experience shooting “savage” Native people for fun. Meek is transparently lost and leading the travelers to their deaths. He insists that he alone knows the way, but the farther they follow him, the more lost they get.

3 movie stills: a woman in a bonnet, a man and a woman conversing in the middle of a forest, and a man and boy looking out over a mountainous landscape
Top: Michelle Williams plays a pioneer in Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s unromantic portrayal of a journey westward in the 1840s. Middle: In Oregon’s remote forests, the protagonists of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace struggle to sustain a family bond. Bottom: In Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys, a trans boy and his father find that an escape into the wilds of Montana isn’t the liberating adventure they hoped for. (Photo 12 / Alamy; Allstar Picture Library / Alamy; Samuel Goldwyn Films / Everett Collection)

Reichardt’s new film, First Cow, offers cowboys who are gentle and relational. Its subject is the partnership between two men trying to survive in a fur-trapping outpost in Oregon Territory in the 1820s. Cookie Figowitz is a traveling cook working for a group of fur trappers, a shy man with a talent for baking. King-Lu is a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a man in a fight. Both are alienated from (and endangered by) the violent culture of the frontier location they occupy, yet they form a tentative, and then tender, friendship. When King-Lu invites Cookie to his shack, Cookie sweeps it, beats out the rug, and picks some wildflowers to make it homey.

The film is a cowboy domestic drama: Reichardt’s plot, while staying squarely in the genre of a frontier Western, turns on Cookie’s baking, and its power to offer nostalgia, pleasure, and sweetness to men starved for them. The two men are deeply attached, and not in the manner of Butch and Sundance, say, whose friendship thrives on complementary talents for outlaw life and a shared death warrant. Cookie and King-Lu are outlaws (they steal milk from the one cow in the outpost), but their bond is rooted in a kind of mutual care that is oriented toward survival and connection. They cannot actually survive—their ambition leads them to take risks that mean they eventually run afoul of the wealthy, authoritarian British expat in charge of the outpost—but when they die, they are lying side by side.

There’s usually a moment in Westerns when the cowboy has an opportunity to turn back, to seek help, to admit pain and weakness, to ask for another way out. The desperate situation usually has an alternative, if only the lone ranger would tolerate his own vulnerability and fallibility. Consider High Noon, the plot of which hinges on retiring Marshal Will Kane’s vain effort to rally a posse to confront an outlaw who he learns is headed into town. His wife—a pacifist—tries to talk him out of it, his former co-workers refuse to join in, and townspeople ask why Kane is insisting on vigilante justice when they pay taxes to support local law enforcement. “This is crazy,” he admits, but Kane—unwilling to lose face or admit to the impossibility of confronting the outlaw and his gang alone—stubbornly insists on continuing with the plan, grimly writing out his will before stepping forth, alone, to face the group of armed men. He is shot, of course. (Thanks to the intervention of his wife, he doesn’t die—“that isn’t my idea of a good Western sheriff,” the director Howard Hawks scoffed, irked by a marshal begging for help, and then being saved by a woman.) But what if, in the moments before stepping out into the dusty street, he had just … turned around?

I keep returning to Zhao’s 2017 film, The Rider, which tells the story of a wounded cowboy. Brady Jandreau plays a version of himself named Brady Blackburn, a gifted rodeo cowboy and horse tamer. (Like Songs My Brothers Taught Me, this story is set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, and stars members of the Lakota Sioux Tribe.) “I’m a cowboy and an Indian,” Jandreau said in an interview after the film was released. The movie begins as Brady is recovering from a catastrophic injury sustained in a fall during a rodeo. The horse stomped on his head, crushing his skull and putting him into a coma. Brady has a zipper of gruesome stitches crowning his shaved head, as well as brain damage, and he’s been forbidden by doctors from ever riding horses or competing in a rodeo again.

Yet riding horses through the South Dakota landscape where he and his family live is more than Brady’s livelihood. “God gives each of us a purpose,” he tells his sister. He is tortured and isolated, unwilling and unable to accept the constricted reality that is taking shape before him. We see Brady pushing against it—riding short distances, breaking a wild horse for a neighbor—and suffering the results: He vomits and has seizures that twist his hand into a stiff claw.

Brady isn’t alone, a fact at the core of the film. In a moving scene, Brady visits his best friend, Lane, in a long-term rehab facility. Lane, we understand, also suffered a rodeo accident, only he wasn’t as lucky as Brady: He suffered profound brain damage and can no longer speak or walk. (Lane is played by Lane Scott, Jandreau’s real-life friend and a rising rodeo star injured in a car accident.) Brady and Lane talk (Lane finger-spelling with one hand) and watch old YouTube videos of Lane’s good rides. “Sit up and look at me,” Brady says gently when Lane begins to slump over. “Pick your head up, brother.”

The film’s crisis arrives when Brady, who can’t endure the idea of living if he can’t be a cowboy, signs up to compete in a rodeo, even though his seizures are getting worse and his doctor has told him that he can’t afford another fall. He is vibrating with rage and desperation when he tells his father (played by Brady’s real father, Tim Jandreau) why he’s putting his saddle in the truck. “I’m gonna ride. I figured you were coming to watch,” he says. His father refuses, and then poses a question that feels like a challenge to the Western, the West, the viewer, the cowboy himself: “What the fuck would I want to come for? Watch you kill yourself?” Brady has no answer.

But his father does come to the rodeo—knowing perhaps that witnessing Brady’s pain is a form of solidarity and care. He brings Brady’s younger sister, Lilly (played by Lilly Jandreau). They stand a ways off, looking on while Brady prepares for the ride. Seeing them, he pauses. He paces; looks at the horse, already in the chute; and looks again at them. Brady approaches the chute and then stops, turns around, and walks away from the pen and back toward his father. We see them hug in the distance, Brady’s back to the rodeo, as they prepare to go home together.

This gesture (turning around, admitting pain and fear, apologizing, asking for help) has been rare in the Western, and yet it is a motif in these films. Although Fern continues living and traveling alone in her van, she also survives on intermittent moments of connection with other nomads, who understand her desire to balance solitude and community, to live mostly alone in nature while bound by human ties. Fern never reintegrates into the world she left, never revisits the offers to live again in a family home—and yet we see her at her most alive in the moments when she finds communion on the road, helping a fellow nomad or being helped. After Swankie dies, Fern joins a gathering of nomads in throwing rocks into a campfire in her memory. Kerrigan’s cowboys, too, find healing, repair, and survival not alone in the woods but after returning to the people who hurt them—and to the family they hurt by fleeing. In Leave No Trace, Tom’s greatest act of courage is deciding to stay among the neighbors and friends she has found, knowing that her father will depart alone. Though they can’t be together, she hangs a food pack in the woods for him to find when he passes back near her.

Like The Rider, these films offer an alternative to the solitary individual who is too committed to his own self-mythology to save himself. They dismantle the notion that individuals achieve self-realization, integrity, and freedom alone and in opposition to (or rejection of) their community. The vision isn’t a sentimental one: Human connections, in these movies, are precarious and take arduous work to sustain, and the survival they enable isn’t triumphal. Brady’s story doesn’t end in either heroism or death—instead, he just lives, with his years of rehab ahead of him, his loving and flawed family, his maimed and precious body.

Soon after he chooses to walk away from the rodeo, Brady is back in Lane’s room at the rehab center. He starts a game we’ve seen them play before: They pretend Lane is riding a horse. Brady offers Lane his hands. “Grab your reins,” he tells him. “Wheel him around to the left.” Lane tugs Brady’s hands. “All right, now to the right … Back him up. You’re on big ole Gus again … Remember that wind on your face?” Brady says, and Lane smiles slightly. The two wounded cowboys continue on for a while that way, with their pretend horse, riding together.