There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.
The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.
[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan]
Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:
Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.
Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?
Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.
Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.
Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…
Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]
This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.
Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).
Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.
Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.
And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.
It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.
Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.