Ever since Edwin S. Porter thrilled audiences in 1903 with his action film The Great Train Robbery, the Western has been the quintessential American film genre. While it has evolved with each new generation, its basic drama of men and women on the frontier locked in some inextricable struggle has remained the same. While Let Him Go is set in the 1970s, writer/director Thomas Bezucha considers it “a Western thriller in an old-school John Wayne way.” When retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) drive to North Dakota to retrieve their abducted grandson, they find themselves in an inevitable showdown with the Weboys, an entrenched local clan controlled by their matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville). “It’s a Western drama,” notes Jeffrey Donovan, who plays Bill Weboy. “You feel like you’re in another world, a world that is no longer around but is something that’s still tangible and dangerous.” (We invite you to recreate your own Western by signing up for the Let Him Go Getaway Sweepstakes.)
To celebrate Let Him Go’s stunning take on the Western, we’re showcasing four other films that have powerfully reframed this great American film tradition.
Perhaps no film has revolutionized the Western as much as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Ranked number five in Entertainment Weekly’s list of “25 Best Modern Western Movies,” the film provides according to The Guardian “a major contribution to our understanding of the western genre” by opening it up to the possiblity of gay sexuality. When Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meet herding sheep, they have no idea how that summer would define the rest of their lives. Set in Wyoming, the film—which was actually shot in Alberta not far from where Let Him Go was made—uses the majestic mountains and rugged wilderness of the Western genre to suggest an open space where their love can exist. “Jack and Ennis cling to the myth of the cowboy because it offers a freedom that only really exists when they cling to each other, a freedom that remains contingent even now,” explains The New York Times.
In a Valley of Violence
While writer/director Ti West made his name with fun-filled horror pics like The Innkeepers, he really hit his stride exploring the Western genre with In a Valley of Violence, a film the New York Daily News calls “simultaneously heart-wrenching, hilarious and horrific.” Paul (Ethan Hawke) is a loner heading to Mexico with his dog Abby when he makes the mistake of stopping off in Denton, a rag-tag frontier town that doesn’t cater much to strangers. Despite his best intentions, Paul soon finds himself locked in a deadly showdown with the town’s marshal (played by John Travolta). Having fun playing with the Western’s well-worn conventions, West nevertheless respects the genre’s deep spirit. In the end, the story comes down to an existential showdown over duty between, as IGN notes, “two men with begrudging respect for each other but with weighty obligations to fulfill that neither of them wanted to take on.”
Tom Ford’s stylish Nocturnal Animals blends multiple genres to tell its story-inside-a-story thriller. Art dealer Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) called Nocturnal Animals. As she reads it, the film shifts into the book’s world of West Texas where Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) is forced off the road by local thugs who kidnap his wife and daughter. As he searches for them with the local sheriff Bobby Andes (played by Michael Shannon in an Oscar®-nominated performance), his worst fears are realized. When this seemingly modern man is forced by circumstances to take up frontier justice to avenge his loved ones, the film, according to The Hollywood Reporter, has “the flavorful feel of gritty Western crime.” Ford, who labels his film “a contemporary Western,” grew up in West Texas and knows firsthand how the genre’s ethos of personal justice and masculinity is baked into the land.
Based on an actual rehabilitation program in Carson City, Nevada, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang tells the story of one man’s redemption through his relationship with a wild animal. Incarcerated for severe domestic violence, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) in some ways embodies the Western individual—a loner of few words who rather lets his fists speak for him. Enlisted into a special horse-training program, Coleman encounters a creature as much in need of love and empathy as himself. Seeing in the tradition the possibility of redemption and second chances as much as violence, The Mustang, according to The New York Times, “takes on the Western as a milieu and a genre with an appreciable lack of cynicism.”