Weird Western Films: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)


This film has been growing on me since I first saw it, when it was released to little critical appreciation and disappointing box office. I think the criticisms at the time were fair: That the title makes the film seem like a jokey genre exercise, and it isn't. Moreover, the film genuinely has some difficulty welding together its Western elements with science fiction elements, with the aliens functioning as a plot point rather than as characters.

I was critical of the film when it came out because it's central metaphor seemed confusing, with the aliens acting both like historical white settlers and cinematic Indians, and that's true. The aliens are huge, crablike things who have landed on earth to extract gold, and will return to exterminate the planet's indigenous species, exactly like European settlers. But they also act as rampaging, anonymous murderers, assaulting a frontier town and kidnapping women and children, which is what cinematic Indians did. I still think the metaphor is muddy.

But if the science fiction is sometimes lacking, the Western isn't. Actor/director Jon Favreau, who helmed the film, has consistently had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood, and he's a director who combines a genuine confidence with big action scenes with a taste for small, telling, often humorous character bits.

Because the film was produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and because the film was made under Steven Spielberg's imprimatur, and because Favreau had recently directed "Iron Man," he managed to assemble an enviable cast here. The film stars Daniel Craig as a haunted man who waked in the West with no memory and with a piece of alien technology strapped to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, a failed mining town ruled by a cattle baron, played by Harrison Ford, and terrorized by his spoiled son, played by Paul Dano. Wandering through this is a woman with a mysterious past, played by Olivia Wilde.

Favreau fills out the supporting roles with a collection of superb character actors, including Clancy Brown as a preacher, Sam Rockwell as a doctor turned saloonkeeper, Keith Carradine as the town's exhausted sheriff, Walton Goggins as a desperado, Adam Beach as Ford's right-hand man, and American Indian Dance Theater choreographer Raoul Trujillo as an Apache chief.

The film basks in the undeniably pleasures of having a cast of this caliber interact, and the script, credited to a half-dozen screenwriters, gives them a lot of small moments of gently comical or bittersweet interaction. (I recently watched the expanded version of the film, which features even more of these, and benefits from them.)

As an example, Ford is typically gruff, playing a former military man who has witnessed the violence of the West since he was a boy, but he also has a disarming tendency to be brusquely fatherly to anyone who seems they need it. He's not very good at it — he mostly ignores Adam Beach, who is essentially an adopted son, in favor of Paul Dano, who is delicious as a town bully, mostly because Daniel Craig spends much of early movie abusing him in response.

Most of the film consists of the characters making ad hoc alliances against the larger threat of alien invasion, and the film is on solid footing here. Nobody trusts each other, but, as they ride out together, they develop a grudging respect that solidifies as they start dying together. There is a campfire scene just before the group mounts an attack on the alien stronghold that solidifies this, much of it left out of the original release of the film, in which the camera moves from one group to another, a mix of Indians, cowboys, and outlaws, all having halting conversations in which they try to find common ground, and succeed.

I did not like that the town was called Absolution when I first saw it. These sorts of freighted names are a Western convention now, but one I generally disapprove of. The West does tend to serve metaphoric purposes in a lot of these films, but you have to offer up a pretty big metaphor to earn such a big gesture, and most films don't. Real Western towns could have pretty grandiose names — Tombstone and Canyon Diablo spring to mind — but most of them had quotidian names (Leadville, Central City) or weirder names (Bumble Bee, Shakespeare). I think "Dead Man" got Western naming conventions just right: The film's frontier town is called Machine.

But in the expanded version of "Cowboys & Aliens," the town is more of a character, and the events of the film redefine the relationships within the town, as well as redefine the future of the town. The place's name might still be a little too literal, but at least it genuinely is a town full of people seeking absolution.

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