Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Can Johnny Depp, Quentin Tarantino, and Natalie Portman all help revitalize the fading Western genre?

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 29, 2012

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.

One is a gigantic, $215 million upcoming Disney blockbuster from the director, star, and producer behind that other lucrative franchise from the Mouse House, Pirates of the Caribbean. Another is a pulpy, violent joyride from a veritable pop culture messiah, known for his energetic and whizbang style of filmmaking, being released this Christmas. And last but not least, the other is a recently-announced, yet highly-promising, project from the female director of last year’s acclaimed indie We Need To Talk About Kevin, with already one Oscar-winning actress attached to star in and produce and certainly more notable thespians to come. What makes these completely disparate productions — all made differently for a different audience and all being released at different times — fit in the same paragraph? Uncommonly enough, they all share the Western as their main genre, and might just help revitalize the ingloriously fading genre. At least, one can only hope.

It certainly seems funny, for a lack of a better word, to even consider that starting from this Christmas day, Django Unchained‘s Quentin Tarantino, The Lone Ranger‘s Johnny Depp, and Jane Got a Gun‘s Natalie Portman might be the big influential Hollywood stars and players helping revitalize the Western for audiences everywhere. And it certainly is heartening, in an almost absurd way, to see that the great, proud American genre of yesteryear, a surefire hit-and-miss scenario nowadays if there was one, hasn’t been completely neglected by Hollywood. After all, you can count on one hand the number of conservative or “traditional” Westerns that were made and released in the past ten years — and these films, like The Proposition, 3:10 To Yuma, and Appaloosa, all faced varying degrees of poor audience receptivity upon their releases. (No one broke through the mainstream except True Grit, andthat one was a well-made if slightly uninspired PG-13 remake of familiar material, made by respected American filmmakers and with a big star in the lead.) The so-called “revisionist” or “neo-” Westerns, trying to expand or burst through their constrained genres, were all met with, again, varying degree of success. (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a particularly fine example, grossed a pitiful $4 million domestically.) So unless your name is Ethan or Joel Coen, and even then, there just isn’t any guarantee of your Western having a good run in theaters.

Yet Gore Verbinski (whose animated Western spoof Rango scored big in 2011), Tarantino, and Lynne Ramsay aren’t shying away from tackling the genre and pushing its boundaries to perhaps fit modernity. Sure, The Lone Ranger is as much a Western as a typically effects-heavy, action-adventure blockbuster to wow teenagers looking for some summer fun (but coming off the disastrous Franken-movie that was Cowboys and Aliens, it’s nice to see a studio even daring to set their big summer movie in a Western locale). Django Unchained seems to mix Sergio Leone‘s famed Spaghetti Western style with Tarantino’s modern showiness to make something quite unique, and perhaps in its own genre. And while Jane Got a Gun seems to be the most dedicated Western of the bunch and the hottest project in Hollywood right now, then again there’s no guarantee that even someone like Portman, alongside Michael Fassbender if he is indeed cast in the film, can muster their combined starpower and make it a hit — after all, the likes of Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and Brad Pitt have all given their best in their respective Westerns at one time or another, to no great avail. Who really knows at this stage? But if there are three films, ranging from the mainstream to the art-house, whom we can all place our hopes on to bring the Western back to every range of audiences, I think it’s The Lone Ranger, Django Unchained, and Jane Got a Gun.

Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger will be released on December 25th, 2012, and July 3rd, 2013, respectively. Jane Got a Gun has no release date announced as of yet, but will start shooting early next year.

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