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The Poetry of Violence: Dissecting the Western

In the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit, corpses litter the (rapidly declining) Old West. They swing from nooses, decay in coffins, freeze solid in the melting snow. And the gaze of Mattie Ross, our vengeful fourteen-year-old heroine, lingers on each and every one. She is both obsessed with the violence all around her… and seemingly numb to it.

Much like the Western genre.

Despite the omnipresent specter of death, the Coens rarely frame True Grit’s numerous gun battles as traditional action scenes, instead filming them from great distances (inspired, perhaps, by Jim Jarmusch’s psychedelic Dead Man)—making the viewer a detached observer rather than a participant. The violence is neither thrilling nor romanticized; it simply exists. Even Rooster’s climactic two-fisted charge against Lucky Ned’s band of outlaws, a moment of triumph and redemption for the aging alcoholic in John Wayne’s interpretation of the tale, feels comparatively abrupt, brutal, and matter-of-fact through the Coens’ sober lens.

This deviates from the style of earlier efforts in the medium’s oldest genre, which tend to celebrate acts of violence—as long as they are performed under the proper circumstances. After managing to creep up behind the four vicious murderers pursuing him through the streets of Hadleyville, High Noon’s valiant, chivalrous, and hopelessly outmatched Marshal Will Kane refuses to follow the most sensible (and understandable) course of action—shooting them all in the back. Instead, he calls out to them, obligingly holding his fire until each man has turned and drawn his weapon. The good, heroic gunslinger, you see, plays fair, not smart.

An army of absurdly talented Italian directors spent the late Sixties dissecting this comforting—but ultimately artificial—notion of “moral violence.” Even as Sergio Leone explored the grotesque beauty of bloodshed—editing his poetic montages of tighter-than-tight close-ups and expansive wide shots to the rhythm of Ennio Morricone’s operatic scores—he deemphasized context, making no attempt to justify his characters’ dirty deeds. Good, bad, ugly: Leone’s work exposes the irrelevance of such distinctions. Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco are all just men with guns, motivated by greed and self-interest rather than some “cowboy code of honor.”

Sergio Corbucci, one of Leone’s contemporaries, probes the deepest, coldest, darkest recesses of this same theme. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly deconstructs the conventions of the Western, then The Great Silence, Corbucci’s towering masterpiece, cruelly and methodically hacks them to pieces. Through his enigmatic actions, the eponymous mute gunslinger questions the archetypal qualities of the Westerner. Like Marshal Kane, he allows his foes to draw first—because doing so allows him to plead “self-defense” (he fights practically, not ethically). His true intentions remain similarly murky throughout the narrative. Does he avenge the old woman’s son because he sympathizes with her—or because he desperately needs the horse she offers as compensation? Does he defend the oppressed mountain folk out of a desire for justice—or because they handsomely reward him for his trouble? Corbucci, taking a page from Leone’s playbook, further blurs the line between good and evil by introducing a foil: Loco, an especially sadistic bounty hunter (played by the gleefully manic Klaus Kinski). Like Silence, he puts a price of $1,000 on human life. Like Silence, he knows how to manipulate the rules of the genre to his advantage (refusing to even touch his gun during their initial confrontation).

In the film’s most dramatic (and traumatic) twist, Loco’s superior craftiness—his willingness to graduate from bending the rules to breaking them—allows him to triumph over the protagonist. Regardless of his ambiguous motives, Silence still fits the mold of the “hero”—even with severely mangled hands, he answers Loco’s challenge to duel. Loco, on the other hand, feels no obligation to adhere to “the code”: he invites a ruthless posse to the showdown as backup, and never gives Silence the opportunity to return fire. And so, a deafening hail of bullets cuts down the hero, his love interest, and the innocent settlers he fought so hard to protect.

This shocking, blunt, and unflinchingly honest portrait of violence in the Wild West leaves the viewer as speechless as the slain protagonist. A “great silence,” indeed. 

[Originally written March 1, 2012.]

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