It seems paradoxical that both “The Power of the Dog” and “The Harder They Fall” have appealed to today’s audiences that are, in part, eager to see more evolved images on-screen yet have flocked to a genre that is mired in hyperheterosexuality and whiteness. “The Power of the Dog” has many of the makings of early Westerns, including its vast landscape, though it explores the interior lives of two queer men locked inside the genre’s white hypermasculinity. “The Harder They Fall” has all the trappings with its rampant violence and themes of conquest and repossession, yet with a cast of Black actors.
But can a genre that inherently clings to social orders of the past also meaningfully consider a larger swath of stories that fall outside its standards found in films like “The Searchers” and “The Magnificent Seven”? The answer to that question is complex.
There are some notable examples of contemporary art. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” reimagines the genre as a space where a freed Black man embarks on a journey to rescue his damsel-in-distress wife from a plantation owner — and actually succeeds. Though it’s thoughtful, wildly entertaining and retains aspects of the genre, it also shows the limitsYou will be amazed at the things you are able to face in a Western.
“Brokeback Mountain,” though, masterfully upends the genre’s unflinching heterosexuality while still holding its signifiers dear to its heart. That’s because the lauded Ang Lee-directed film makes its story work for the genre, and not the other way around.
To be fair, “The Power of the Dog,” adapted and directed by Jane Campion, does the same thing to a certain extent. Its characters, including abrasive ranch owner, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his brother’s effeminate stepson, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), are also fully realized, flawed humans whose stories are as compelling as their 1925 Montana panorama.
But as reformist as its storytelling often is — with the men sharing emotionally intimate yet controlled moments and the film subbing out explicit murder with an implicitly violent act at its end — “The Power of the Dog” still prioritizes restoring the white family by any savage means.
Andrew Selepak (a University of Florida media professor) can see this as a Catch-22. He didn’t care for “The Power of the Dog” at all, mostly because he says it’s missing key elements that make up the genre, like its brutality and straightforwardness.
“It wasn’t even a good movie, much less a good Western,” he told HuffPost. “There were aspects of the film that were like, ′We’ll just leave it up to the audience to figure out what’s really going on.′ Westerns are relatively simplistic. Protagonist, antagonist — you know what they’re battling.”
But “The Power of the Dog” DoesCombat. It’s just of the internal kind, which perhaps doesn’t suit the genre’s historically more direct approach. “One aspect that was really surprising — Westerns generally do have violence in them,” Selepak continued. “And I’m pretty sure there was never a single time in the movie when a gun was fired.”
It is still a mystery what makes a Western a modern Western or even a Western. This is especially true as the genre attempts to provide the type of representation audiences want.
Writer-director Jeymes Samuel’s action-packed “The Harder They Fall” avoids typically white antiheroes to tell a potentially more forward-thinking revenge tale inspired by a real-life Black gang in the 19th-century wild, wild West. Trouble is — according to Tiffany Barber, assistant professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware — it doesn’t go farther than that. It doesn’t take time to sit with the humanity of its characters or reflect the landscape of Black and Indigenous relations that helped form what in reality was a mixed-raced troop.
“I think that the issue of the corrective or the reparative is very much at the center of this,” she said. “In ‘The Harder They Fall,’ it’s a very surface understanding and representation of Black life that’s not even about Black life. It’s about the genre itself.”
It can also be difficult to watch “The Harder They Fall,” a film that seems far more interested in merely swapping out the white faces fundamental to the genre than contending with its Blackness, at a time when disposability of Black bodies is at the forefront of current dialogue.
This begs the question, Barber added, of whether or not representation itself is even enough when, in the case of “The Harder They Fall,” the characters are so flatly drawn in a genre that has yet to truly make room for those outside its archetypal Americanness.
“There’s so much to be said about the way that even with the social corrections that seem to gesture toward a more progressive era that the genre itself has not actually progressed,” she said.
Yet, Westerns are still loved and adored by audiences. This is a love that dates back to the cinematic origins of Western cinema at the close of the 19th Century. But maybe that says a lot more about what today’s audiences look for in a film.
For Sharon Geltner, a freelance journalist, the answer is clear: “A lot of people today did not grow up on Westerns. So they’re eager to see this stuff, and they’re not going to be offended.”
Sure. The bar should, as with all genres, be higher than the level of its offensiveness. This brings us back to the issue of quality, regardless of any social reparatives. While some viewers, like Barber, see very little hope in the genre being able to evolve in any impactful way, save for a few sprinklings of achievement, others like Geltner see possibility — IfIt has a great story.
“No matter what color you are, or what walk of life you’re from, there has to be a really compelling story,” she said. “It’s not enough just to cast a certain way or include certain things that are gimmicks. The actual story has to be the bedrock that everything else flows from.”
It is a mere relic.