30 CinÉireann / Issue 9
Instead, the contemporary western genre is largely informed by postcolonial concerns, almost written in response to the colonial mythmaking of the genre’s earliest instalments. Quentin Tarantino deserves a lot of credit for bringing this deconstructionist approach into the mainstream with Django Unchained. Obviously building upon broader trends within the genre, Django Unchained was an unprecedented hit. An R-rated slavery western released at Christmas, it earned more than four hundred million at the global box office. It changed everything about how westerns were made.
In the wake of Django Unchained, it became common for pulp narratives focusing on American history to incorporate the realities of slavery into their storytelling. To pick a random example, the opening moments of the sadly-underseen WGA series Underground feature a daring slave escape set to Kanye West’s 'Black Skinhead'. Even relatively straightforward and conventional middle-of-the-road classic western stories like Hostiles found that they had to confront the horrors upon which the genre was built.
Indeed, it became a lot harder for storytellers to avoid the colonial atrocities that provide the foundation for the romance of the western. Sofia Coppola generated a minor controversy when she tried to remake The Beguiled, a story set on a Confederate Plantation during the Civil War, without acknowledging slavery.
The past decade has seen a recurring effort to hybridise the western in order to heighten the cultural anxieties underpinning it. The past few years have seen a number of western horror stories, movies that present the frontier as something grotesque and terrifying.
Bone Tomahawk takes the basic premise of The Searchers before transforming itself into something harrowing and unsettling. The Hateful Eight is very much a western version of The Thing, right down to utilising some of Ennio Morricone’s unused score; it is a tale of a bunch of strangers trapped together in a confined space, unwilling and unable to trust each other. Even The Revenant frequently plays as an extended nightmarish chase movie, with several of the visuals evoking the cinematic language of zombie movies and several of the compositions evoking Bryan Fuller’s nightmare geometry in Hannibal.
There is a recurring sense in the contemporary western that the frontier is a dangerous and unwelcoming place for those who would presume to tame it, that the hubris and the arrogance of the European settlers seeking to colonise a land that they don’t understand will have disastrous consequences. This is hardly a radical notion; it was very much at the heart of The Shining nearly four decades ago. However, it is an argument that has become an essential part of the western’s identity in recent years. It has been incorporated in the DNA of the genre, this perverse irony where the foundation myth of a colonial power has been turned into a boomerang. It all comes around.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that this narrative reckoning with the genre arrives at a point when the United States is grappling furiously with its cultural and historical identity. The deconstruction of the western myth in contemporary American cinema is ultimately just another front in the same culture war that is struggling with what to do about statues erected to Confederate figures or how to navigate the racist legacy of the Confederate flag. At a point when the American President was elected on the promise to “Make America Great Again”, there is clearly a battle being fought between the reality and the fantasy of American history. It is no coincidence that that candidate secured the endorsement of the KKK and initially refused to condemn white supremacists at Charlottesvile.
This shift within the western genre is also reflected in broader culture as well, particularly contemporary science-fiction. After all, science-fiction has itself long been a vehicle for colonial narratives about civilised Europeans imposing order of savage and primitive natives. Even the relatively liberal and utopian Star Trek franchise has been described by commentators like Elizabeth Sandifer as a benign fantasy of empire from a global power that emerged too late have its own sprawling global empire. Contemporary science-fiction tends to pick at the idea of the “other” that is rendered as subhuman and must prove its humanity to those in positions of authority; consider the endings of films like Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.