Jonah Hex is the latest Weird Western blockbuster to be absolutely FUBAR. What filmmakers don't understand is that Weird Westerns don't need giant robo-spiders or CG fireworks, the setting — the endless frontier — does all the work for you.
NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Jonah Hex, but I'm pretty sure you don't care.
In theory, Hollywood should only be making Weird Westerns. Cowboys + aliens + ghosts + steampunk blunderbusses + throw a big bag of money at Ennio Morricone = everyone in the studio parking garage gets new Lamborghinis. But the reality of Weird Westerns is much more vexing. Hollywood has made only two marquee Weird Westerns in the last 20 years — Wild Wild West and Jonah Hex (Uwe Boll's BloodRayne II doesn't count) — and watching either of these films is on par with a firewater enema.
(Heck, even television can't sustain good Weird Westerns. 1993's wacky The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. aired for only one season, and 2002's Firefly — a space epic which embraced oodles of Western motifs — was more or less consigned to Boot Hill right from the start.)
The thing is, there's no reason Hollywood should turn its nose up at Weird Westerns, since the genre has the potential to be one of the most blockbuster-friendly around. Also, whenever a studio churns out a Weird Western, they totally ignore the awesome opportunities for tension, excitement, and atmosphere the frontier genre affords films.
Let's take a look at the unpinned shit grenade that was 1999's Wild Wild West. What do most people remember about that film?
1.) That giant mechanical spider.
2.) Kenneth Branagh, a critically acclaimed actor, vamping in a wig.
3.) Salma Hayek in a bustier.
Similarly, what's most memorable about Jonah Hex?
1.) That giant mechanical dragonball cannon.
2.) John Malkovich, a critically acclaimed actor, vamping in a wig.
3.) Megan Fox in a bustier
4.) The notable lack of Sisqo on the soundtrack. (NOTE: I realize that Mastodon scored Jonah Hex, but my metal expertise begins and ends with Judas Priest's "Turbolover.")
Barring Josh Brolin's gamely grimacing, there isn't a lot to recommend about Jonah Hex. But what kills me is that — 11 years later — the film manages to screw up in the exact same ways as Wild Wild West. Rather than utilize the isolation and starkness of the frontier for action sequences, both films clog the screen with needless explosions and lumbering CG creations. All of this distracting digital dross is a pity, as Weird Westerns come ready-made with an awesome diorama that complements science fiction — the vast frontier.
I'm sorry to say it gang, but probably none of us will ever make it to space. So while we can appreciate and comprehend the bleak, endless vacuum of space depicted in Alien or Sunshine, we have no sensory frame of reference. Sure, we can understand the claustrophobia of working in a cramped spaceship, but 99.999% of audience members have no firsthand experience spacewalking. (I presume Buzz Aldrin enjoys even the most loathsome space movies. He'll walk out of Space Chimps, slyly grinning and reminiscing, "Ah, that brings me back.")
Weird Westerns bridge that phenomenological gap. I'm guessing the average American film-goer has — at one point — either visited the rural West, a large field, or at least an empty parking lot. It's natural to feel a smidge agoraphobic in these situations — in the dark, your mind plays tricks on you. Multiply that agoraphobia by a thousand and you have the Old West — in the dark, your mind builds entire cyclopean empires; there's something out there, but chances are it doesn't care about the laws which begin and end with your wagon train. Isolation, unknown cultures, the infinite — what's more space odyssey than that?
The best Weird Westerns allow the sprawling frontier to organically give up its secrets. Let's take a look at movies in which Hollywood did things right.
In 1973's High Plains Drifter, the Stranger rolls into the town of Lago, appoints the town dwarf as sheriff, literally paints the town red, and renames Lago "Hell." Despite the fact that the Stranger's insane/some sort of supernatural presence, the craven townspeople hire him to protect them from marauding bandits. It's a wonderful, totally fucking bizarre movie. In High Plains Drifter, the frontier slowly unleashes the weirdness and highlights how tenuous the isolated townspeople's sense of civilization is. The audience isn't force-fed a giant mecha Clint Eastwood.
Plus, it helps that Dee Barton's theme is haunting, synthesized screaming. Here's the trailer:
Similarly, 1999's Ravenous wasn't perfect, but it had atmosphere to spare. The film offered us a glimpse of Old West cannibalism before inviting the audience to a veritable Donner Party. Also, the underrated score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman does wonders for the ambience.
Finally, there are two great modern-day Western vampire flicks, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) and Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Til Dawn (1996). Both films use the vastness of the West to obscure the existence of vampires — when the vamps make their presence known, it's jarring. Also, Near Dark had an excellent score by Tangerine Dream. Are you seeing a trend?
I wasn't sure what clip to include here, so I defaulted to Salma. It's what I do when I'm under pressure.
Of course, none of the above films broke box office records, but then again, neither did Wild Wild West (and Jonah Hex isn't poised to win anyone Christmas bonuses). The next big Weird Western coming up is Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens in 2011. I hope that this flick breaks Hollywood's Weird Western crap streak, but the moment I see a cyborg rodeo clown commandeered by Jeremy Irons, I'm refusing to drink the sarsaparilla.