You can look at LOGAN, a movie about death and the end of eras and believe there isn’t much in it that’s hopeful. I’mma tell you you’re wrong. I walked out of LOGAN hopeful for the future of the western. James Mangold, who also directed 3:10 to Yuma (2007), comes back with another spike to drive in any argument that the western is dead and unfashionable. Not only did he make a fine western, he made it modern, and he made it fucking sick.

Like Sam Peckinpah’s western epic The Wild Bunch (1969), the world of LOGAN is in its death throes. There aren’t many mutants left, and their way of life is over. Even Logan is getting old. We know it in the scars across his flesh, how his claws don’t come out like they used to, and in the beating he takes early on from a gang of criminals that once wouldn’t have fazed him. The heart of conflict in the western genre lies in a struggle between wilderness and civilisation. It can often be understood as a struggle between a man’s chosen way of life and another that is being forced upon him. LOGAN, like The Wild Bunch, cynically embraces this kind of death as inevitable. The story goes that Logan and Professor X are hiding out on the Mexican border (also a lot like The Wild Bunch), where Logan is scrabbling together cash for a boat so he and Professor X can leave the world behind.

That’s the overarching struggle. The more personal, moral struggle that Logan himself faces borrows directly from another great western, Shane (1953). The struggle of being a gun, a man engineered to kill struggling with his brutal nature. It’s obvious enough that Mangold decided to show a clip from Shane and borrowed a few critical lines I won’t spoil, because both Shane and LOGAN are great movies and you should watch them. The lines have a lot to do with painting Logan as the lone gunfighter we always understood him to be, and what that means for his struggle for redemption.

This struggle comes in the form of Laura, a human genetically engineered with Logan’s own particular mutant properties. She and a bunch of other mutant kids escape a facility run by the always excellent Richard E. Grant. She gets separated and comes under Logan’s protection. Soon, an honest-to-god western happens. There’s one cool sequence involving a family of corn farmers. In the future, massive genetically modified corn farms are destroying non-GMO corn farms. They’ve got big robot harvesters, and regular ol Papa Corn Farmer can’t beat that. When we first meet the farmers, their horses are run off the highway by automated shipping containers zipping heedlessly along it. Soon after, the farm’s water supply is sabotaged by men working for Big Corn. There’s just no place for them in the world. It’s got Shane and The Wild Bunch written all over it.

LOGAN‘s version of a western starts out in Texas, winds through open plains, forests and farmland and makes a few stops in arid, cactus-populated desert regions. Almost the entire story plays out in the wilderness as Logan works to keep Laura out of the hands of those that would do harm to her. Mangold uses setting to inform the story, and he does it real fuckin well. There’s one scene where Logan goes full beast mode in a forest and it is brutal. It’s also a pivotal moment, where Logan is fighting for the mutant way of life. It’s glorious, is what it is.

Mangold ends up saying there is still a lot of fight left in the western, even after the land, the people, and the genre are dead and gone and turned into GMO corn. LOGAN says what the best westerns do, that trying to retain a piece of yourself, or your life, or the life you love in the face of massive opposition is what hope is all about.

Yknow, sometimes I think I’ve got a real weakness for lost causes.

on makin em like they used to

The Salvation (2014) is the sort of western you measure by the quality and length of its silences. I always find the more talking a western has in it, the less emphatic it is, and the more it strays from the genre. The western moves slow. It’s in a slow drawl, the wind, it’s in the remote homesteads and far-flung townships. Westerns are about the sort of people who drive cattle across the state and the people who go to the same saloons every night. Their lives crawl, the land crawls, and change happens slowly. What’s there to talk about when you’ve got all day to say it?


I really enjoyed it. Its Danish director (Kristian Levring) must have drawn from a certain Italian director who mastered the art of silence in westerns better than any other, and yeah, I know how great John Ford is, but maybe Americans don’t know how to do quiet. Maybe. I can’t remember. Part of me doing this is I get to refresh my memory of what westerns are again. Anyway, Mads Mikkelsen plays your good and proper stony hero, who immediately and brutally avenges the murder of his wife and son. It runs him afoul of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the movie’s menacing antagonist. Good good good. I’ve always wanted to see him in a western. Neither of them make a point of saying much. The movie lets the audience soak up its scenes to the chirping of crickets and a permanent rustling breeze. It doesn’t hurry through anything, but no moment is wasted. When action comes it is sharp and sudden, even when you expect it. Every bullet fired pounds across the soundscape. Each one rings in your ears. It is the silence before it that brings out that action and feeds the tension. When a storm finally breaks, it’s the lightning makes you jump from your seat.


Oh, and one more thing about silence. It’s strong. Perhaps the strongest character in this entire movie is neither Mads Mikkelsen nor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Perhaps it’s Eva Green, who never says a word, and is more stony and determined than the other two combined.


The rest of the movie is satisfactorily decent. It seems like the director chose to use the old technique of filming night scenes during the day and applying a dark gel filter across the lens to simulate night, then CGI’d in a moon to make it look real. Maybe he used some modern technique. Maybe it was the cameras themselves, because the daytime colours come out in spectacular form. It’s a bit disconcerting, but it also brings out a contrast which complements the tone of the movie. Westerns are all more or less about the stark struggle between good and evil at the most fundamental levels of human survival. Yeah nah tops.


So yeah, silence, tone, contrast. Those are some good words to think about when you’re watching a western. Unless you’re kind of aware of what you’re looking for, the good ones actually just seem pretty boring.