If the prominence of the Western as a cinematic genre peaked in the late Fifties, so too did the concept of American Exceptionalism that it so frequently mythologized. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the recent spate of revisionist anti-Westerns that has been hitting screens of late reads more like eulogy than mythology, declaring defunct the ideals of Manifest Destiny and replacing them with a growing sense of uncertainty and self-doubt. An entire generation of mamas did let their babies grow up to be cowboys, and those cowboys’ descendants are now left to grapple with the fallout of decades worth of an institutionalized shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality.
A correlative line could be drawn from John Ford’s early canonization of the Western mythos with films like Stagecoach (1939) to Fred Zinneman’s Red Scare allegory High Noon (1952) or Ford’s mounting anxiety about his own creation as displayed in The Searchers (1956), straight through to Clint Eastwood’s upending of the genre’s tropes with Unforgiven (1992), and finally arriving at our contemporary deconstructionist era characterized by recent films like Hostiles, Lean on Pete and The Rider. Writer/director Chloé Zhao utilizes codified Western iconography to examine masculinity through the lens of the cowboy archetype, but there’s a major twist: She’s using real cowboys.
Zhao’s script is based largely on the experiences of the film’s star, former rodeo champion Brady Jandreau, who plays the barely pseudonymous Brady Blackburn. He’s joined by his real-life father and sister, along with Lane Scott — a former rodeo star who, both in the film and in life, was injured so badly in a bronc-riding incident that he was left largely paralyzed. This is the fate that may await Brady, recovering from a similar injury, should he get back on the horse both literally and metaphorically.
The scar on Jandreau’s head is real, as is the emotional conflict we see him struggle with. In a masculine culture built on tough-as-nails stoicism, can there be dignity in self-preservation? When his Indian reservation cohorts admonish him to return to the rodeo, or as Lane slowly signals — in sign language, as he’s lost his ability to speak — that Brady should just “rub dirt” on the metal plate in his skull, the psychological splitting between the pressures of maintaining his social persona and his rational interest in not dying becomes palpable. Zhao depicts a world of toxic masculinity that may very well turn lethal but does so with an affectionate understanding of the upside of machismo.
It’s this nuanced approach that distinguishes Zhao’s work from simple genre revisionism, and her quasi-cinéma-vérité approach packs a wallop. For nonprofessional performers, her cast acquits itself admirably, driving home narrative beats with the impact of people who have lived the story. This all feels real because it is, and that makes the emotional weight of Brady’s decision all the more believable. By employing Western iconography to subvert the genre’s own assertions of male identity, Zhao has delivered a pointed and moving question straight to the heart of not only what the genre represents about masculinity, but more importantly, what it doesn’t. Rated R for language and drug use.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.