The western has been proclaimed dead numerous times since the mid to late 1970s, only to bounce back every few years, with a few films to show it’s still somewhat alive. In the past decade or so, there’s been a steady trickle of a few notable westerns per almost every year. Most of these have either presented a radical new direction for the old genre, a revision of a popular myth or a reflection on and/or a subversion of genre tropes.
The two new westerns currently showing at the Leiden International Film Festival (a festival partly dedicated to showcasing independent American cinema that hasn’t made it into Dutch cinemas) fall into that latter category. The Sisters Brothers (2018) and Damsel (2018) tell tales that take twists and turns, subverting expected western narratives and expectation, while at the same time revelling in western imagery and atmosphere. In doing so, both deny certain pleasures of the genre while offering up others.
For instance, The Sisters Brothers presents reflections on the changing nature of the American West and American enterprise, and while director Jacques Audiard revels in violent imagery, the various shoot-outs are deliberately unspectacular and hard to follow (or even see). While most westerns following a pair of professional gunslinger would focus on these action sequences or try to make them the highlights of the film, here they almost feel like an afterthought, to reflect how routine this gun violence is for the titular brothers. The outcome of the shoot-outs is never in doubt, and the brothers almost appear invincible. While during scenes of sickness due to swallowing a spider or when one of the brothers’ arms has to be amputated, their bodies prove rather fragile and vulnerable, and Audiard wants us to feel this by way of his close-ups on unnaturally bulging necks, spider-induced vomit, and a rotting arm about to be cut off.
Meanwhile, the violence in Damsel is played for both comedy and tragedy at the same time. Like one of the brothers in the The Sisters Brothers, one of the protagonists who initially seemed a hero of sorts turns out to be psychotic, doing more harm than good. His name is Samuel and he sets out to save the titular damsel from her supposed kidnappers, with a priest and miniature horse in tow to immediately propose marriage to her upon rescuing her. Except that after killing the kidnapper, this villain turns out to have been happily married to Samuel’s bride to be Penelope, and they’d built an idyllic life together now violently broken up by our hero, who suddenly turns out to be a delusional stalker. The grand romance the film builds up to in the first 30 minutes, turns out to only exist in his overactive imagination. Much like the ideal of going out west for a fresh start, which the priest did, only to become a disillusioned drunk. A damning commentary on western myths based on male entitlement and eastern imagination, and its tragic consequences, couched in absurdist humour.
Both films use absurdism to soften the blow of a harsh, darker worldview, in which violence is ever present and capable of instantly changing or ending lives. And to either soften their characters or present them as softer. Experienced, seemingly uncultured gunslinger Eli Sisters is constantly seeking a bit of enlightenment in his dark world, highlighted most of all by his discovery of the joy of brushing his teeth with tooth powder. His violent acts and tough exterior hide a soft interior. The psychotic Samuel of Damsel is almost an inversion of Eli Sisters. Played by Robert Pattinson at his most baby-faced, he asks for a pilsner at a saloon that only serves whiskey, starting a string of jokes based on his fresh-faced demeanour and behaviour, including him singing a cringe-worthy ballad he has composed for the ‘love of his life’, lampooning the trope of the singing cowboy. It’s all fun and games until the true self of this ‘nice guy’ is revealed, while his titular damsel proves to be far from a damsel in want or in need of saving.
In both these films, familiar genre surfaces and the expectations that follow are upended. In The Sisters Brothers, the manhunt of two gunslingers turns out to be a search for a better life, one without violence, strife and hostility, a search for friendship and ultimately for love. In Damsel, the traditional western narrative of the white man saving the white woman from the savage (be it people of other colours or men outside of civilised society) turns out to be a lie, as does the narrative of the man finding his true self in the west. The damsel is the one in control and the only one who behaves like a western hero. The west of Damsel is perceived to be idyllic and beautiful but turns out to be harsh, unforgiving and unpredictable. The biggest downside of subverting classic narratives is that Damsel starts to drift after already making its points, and could’ve done with some tightening up. Both films have deliberately meandering narratives that don’t lead to expected conclusions, but Damsel literally loses the plot in the latter half of the film.
The upside of all this meandering is the way it gives the filmmakers room to luxuriate in one of the greatest traditional pleasure of the western genre: the landscapes of the American West. Both films take place in Oregon, though only Damsel was actually shot in the awesome mountains, forests and beaches of the state (except for the opening scene, shot in the familiar stony desert of Utah). In The Sisters Brothers, Romania, Spain and France double quite convincingly for the imagined American West in which the brothers roam. Because no matter how much or how little the creators of these two films want to subvert western tropes and myths, they just have to have many scenes of people travelling on horseback through those iconic landscapes. And, why not?