by Sage Cruser
Establishing itself as a prolific and popular genre for roughly the first half of the 20th century, then becoming less prolific yet still on-and-off popular with audiences through to today, the Western – with all the good and bad of it, in all its iterations – is responsible for a significant chunk of American film production. Associated with the genre are recognizable themes and tropes: individualism, retribution, the outlaw gunslinger, the beckoning horizon, and so on. Revolving around tales occurring in 19th century western regions of what is now the U.S., much of the genre’s content is ripe for criticism: racism and “white heroism,” imperialism, and misogyny, for example.
With so much existing material, most of which has been created by and about men, even the briefest of examinations reveals many of the Western’s myths and components that have contributed to shaping American popular culture.
Having thought about all this a fair amount, I regularly find myself seeking out innovative takes on the Western – especially those created by and about women. I’m interested in how contemporary women filmmakers harvest elements from such a deeply rooted genre and repurpose them to tell their own unique, modern stories. That kind of creativity can make for quality movies, and today I’m recommending three of them to you.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
A vampire (listed as “The Girl” and played by Sheila Vand) wanders the streets of Bad City, Iran in search of guys being bad, and she finds a few who wish she hadn’t. She also finds love.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, has been frequently referred to as an “Iranian Vampire Western,” but it can’t be tied to any one identity. Taking place in an isolated town with a mysterious lone protagonist and set to a soundtrack reminiscent of certain Ennio Morricone scores, it’s a fantastic mash-up of genres and influences.
Shot in black and white with the starkness of a classic noir, the atmosphere is dreamy, inviting you to get lost on a stroll through its extraordinary world and maybe get drained of your blood. This quality is key to what Amirpour was going for, as she told IndieWire: “A film can be like a dream. It’s a fairy tale. It’s not beholden to rules or laws of the real world. I have no loyalty to the real world… So yeah it’s definitely out of space and time with a logic that a dream would have, which doesn’t necessarily follow the rules of physics, you know? There’s so much weird shit in your dreams.”
Amirpour brought Bad City to life in the small oil town of Taft, California. Having grown up in California on American pop culture, it’s clear she had fun with the opportunity to design a world influenced by it. In a video interview with The Vilcek Foundation, she discussed making everything from the street signs to the commercials on the TV. She also spoke about creating the movie with other Iranian artists like herself who weren’t living in Iran: “Bad City became like our Iran.”
A reporter with The New Republic asked Amirpour why she chose to shoot in California when the language spoken in the movie is Farsi, to which Amirpour answered: “It’s an Iranian story with Iranian characters. I don’t think it really matters where I shot it… A film is a place of the mind. So I just see this as my soundstage where I’m putting my play on. I’m modeling it after a lawless, nameless ghost town from like, a Sergio Leone western… Like if I was Polish, and I made a Polish story I wonder if people would be asking me why it was in Polish?”
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Mouly Surya, 2017)
Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a Sumba woman who has been attacked and robbed by a group of men, retaliates and seeks justice.
Indonesian director Mouly Surya told BBC that Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, her third feature, is “about a woman willing to survive. Who follows her instincts, who doesn’t even know what feminism is, you know in this rural area of Indonesia, in Sumba island. But then it’s very instinctive for her to fight back.” Marlina is an intriguing character who carries with her the force of her trauma, the literal and figurative weight of it; I imagine there’s nothing quite like hauling around the severed head of your attacker and being followed around by his ghost.
One of my favorite things about Marlina is the stunning way in which it displays the landscapes of Sumba island. At one point on her way to town with the aforementioned severed head, Marlina takes control of a bus. Through a wide shot, we watch from afar and listen to the conversation the characters are having as the bus makes its way up a winding salt-white road through the open, dry, yellow-brown hills. This imagery certainly evokes the visual style of many classic Westerns; but with the location, characters, and context of the story, something unique is created.
Maggie Lee labeled Marlina “the first Satay Western” for a review in Variety, and I’m not sure how I feel about that tag, but it exists. I do, however, know I appreciate these thoughts that Krithika Varagur expressed about Marlina for an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “The film uses the Western’s genre conventions like a Trojan horse to relate a story from an indigenous society that is exotic even to most Indonesians... By the time you’ve registered the click of her horse’s hooves, the panoramic shots of a dry landscape, and the monosyllabic dialogue, you are already deep within a story of a woman’s brutal assault.”
Surya spoke to Vice about using elements of the Western in order to help her tell Marlina’s story: “It’s not that I found the genre first and then the story second, it’s the other way around. There’s this story, and then I thought of a way to convey it to the audience… I also play with the convention. I mean, people will call it feminist western. It’s western and anti-western at the same time, so it’s something familiar but it’s not. The Western genre itself is very masculine and [inherently] misogynist. So Marlina is trying to reverse the convention.”
Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2019)
Set near the Canadian border in rural North Dakota, sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) navigate the ravages of opioids, housing and financial insecurity, and healthcare injustice.
Dubbed a winning Neo-Western by critics, Little Woods is a story of desperation and survival in a world full of obstacles, but also love during times of extreme hardship. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, New York-based writer/director Nia DaCosta said that the idea of freedom is central to the story, “but what does it look like when you’re a woman and you’re limited because the people who have it impede your freedom?”
Tessa Thompson delivers an incredibly impactful performance as Ollie. On the verge of breaking through into a new life for herself near the end of her probation, Ollie is hit with daunting challenges that threaten to rob her of a fresh start. Her resilience in the face of those challenges is a big part of her character’s appeal, demonstrating for us just how far she’s willing to go for her sister and herself. Speaking with Collider, Thompson emphasized the importance of the project for her: “Particularly, just being a young woman of color, we don’t get to occupy these spaces a lot. There are a lot of movies about the experience of being in rural America, but nobody looks like me in those stories, or like Nia.”
DaCosta has talked about the influence Westerns have had on her and how Little Woods reflects that influence. The beautiful North Dakota scenery played a crucial role in her production process, as did certain thematic elements. In an interview with Dazed, she said: “This movie is all about your choices only being as good as your options, and I think in Westerns, that is hugely what they are about, but also about having to make a choice between two worlds, even if that choice is impossible or is forced upon you. In that conceptual way, (Little Woods) is (a Western). But in a practical way, I always imagine it as about like, this lone gunslinger who puts down her guns and someone has to convince her to pick them back up again, and here that’s her sister.”
Krithika Varagur asserts that “because of the Western’s unusual saturation of visual and narrative tropes, the genre is capacious and adaptable…The distinctive and repeated elements of the Western can foster creativity, much like the metrical constraints of a sonnet.
We need more of this creative work – especially from women filmmakers – and I’m confident we’ll get it.
I was fortunate enough to write this article from the safety of my home, but there are many people in our Seattle community and beyond for whom home is not a safe place. If you or anyone you know is being affected by domestic violence or abuse and prefers not to contact the police, please consider utilizing resources provided and recommended by Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN) and The NW Network. Some of these resources also include help for people who are struggling with things like food, shelter, and other essentials.
Sage Cruser works at Scarecrow.