Westernish cinema

And old theme emerges in a new batch of VOD and streaming films



In Theeb, a young boy and his older brother ride into a great desert canyon; partway through, they’re caught in a deadly ambush. In A Perfect Day, a couple of rowdy Americanos swagger around in a desert war zone; turns out they’re trying to help refugees and other victims of war. In The Wind Journeys, a solitary youth intently follows an old musician on a burro around, from one “duel” to another, in the radiant countryside.

It sounds as though these films—releases that bypassed local theaters but have recently become available via video-on-demand, or Netflix and/or DVD—might be Westerns, and the same could be said of a couple of other noteworthy but somewhat marginalized new releases, The Treasure, from Romania, and the L.A.-based Mojave. But while only the latter is actually an American production and none of them is a Western in any strict sense of the term, all five have intriguing and even crucial links to Western movies (mythic journeys, harsh landscapes, deadly conflict, etc.).

As such, they might also be seen as further developments in the fitfully flourishing mini-trend of “revisionist” Westerns and of “Westerns by other means.” For me, at least, that terminology is an umbrella under which there’s room for Django Unchained, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Slow West and Bone Tomahawk, as well as other recent examples such as Timbuktu (from Mali), Jauja (from Argentina), Far From Men (Algeria), Deadwood and Justified on television, and noirish rural crime stories like Blue Ruin and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

The canyon ambush in Theeb, an Oscar nominee for best foreign film, takes place in World War I-era Jordan. The title character is the younger of the two brothers, and his post-ambush journey through assorted hostile territories is a trial by fire for him and a riveting adventure story for us viewers. Director Naji Abu Nowar makes brilliant use of Jordanian desert landscapes and gets excellent performances from a cast of Bedouin nonprofessionals. And there’s nothing silly or childish about the climactic choices of young Theeb (“wolf”).

A Perfect Day is a Spanish production filmed in English by director Fernando León de Aranoa. The setting is Bosnia in 1995 and the Americanos mentioned above are humanitarian relief workers played by Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins. Their story is a picaresque adventure in which roistering, free-form “cowboy” heroics do Quixotic battle with implacable forces of bureaucratic militarism and genocidal chaos.

Like Theeb, The Wind Journeys has spectacular outdoor visuals (especially with some near-psychedelic Cinecolor panoramas) and a youthful protagonist bent on taking big risks sooner rather than later. The old man on the burro is a traveling musician and the “accursed” accordion he carries is his weapon of choice in the deadly serious musical duels he fights at neighboring fiestas. Released in 2009, and only on DVD in the U.S., The Wind Journeys ranks as a fresh discovery, a remarkably vivid and earthy folk tale with Orphic overtones. The film is the work of Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, the director of Embrace of the Serpent, another of this year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign film.

In The Treasure, Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu has a couple of rather tattered functionaries and one very grumpy guy with a metal detector venture out for a farcical nighttime treasure hunt on some old family property. It’s sort of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre restaged as Theater of the Absurd in post-Soviet Romania.

In William Monahan’s Mojave, a campfire in the desert is the starting point for an increasingly menacing battle of wits between a brooding Hollywood producer (Garrett Hedlund) and a strangely loquacious and shabby-looking drifter (Oscar Isaac). Much of this strange story devolves into cliché, but Isaac’s drifter remains starkly fascinating throughout.