6 December 2012
Over the past decade, several contemporary Westerns have emerged, presenting a new take on the iconic American Southwest. Some, rather than reinforcing the late 19th century image of fearless cowboys and manifest destiny, have elected to show a grimmer, more realistic depiction of life on the frontier. That is, the west during the second half of the 20th century. This west lacks the promise and freedom of the earlier west; it displays a world that has been the subject of societal exploitation and the enemy of time and weather. It is a world in which the lines between civilization and the frontier have been blurred and thus the faults of each have crept to either side. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men encapsulates this deteriorated ideal: It “unfolds against one of America’s most visceral and mythologized landscapes”, only to reveal in its 1980s Texas setting a countryside that has become rampant with evil and destruction and a cityscape that is in no way different or more safe (Cinema Review). Society has inserted itself into the Western landscape, distorted and adopted its affinity for gun-slinging and lawlessness, and sequentially assimilated itself back within the scope of “civilization”. The result is a terrifyingly violent arena in which no one can be trusted and nothing is certain. Alternatively, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the 1960s-1980s Wyoming and Texas setting shows a division between society and wilderness that has not yet wholly crumbled but is beginning to fall apart at the seams. In some remote areas the frontier remains pure and untarnished by civilization; however, the promise of these areas is fleeting and quickly replaced by the harsh reality of the outer modern world. Within these landscapes, the central characters of Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men are trying to preserve both historical and personal pasts while simultaneously coping with the truth of the present; that is, the inevitable corruption and distortion of the frontier under the hand of civilization.
In the opening monologue of No Country for Old Men, Sherriff Bell refers to the “old timers”, remarking, “You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can’t help but wonder how they’d have operated these times” (Coen and Coen). This line sets up the tone of the film while simultaneously cluing the audience into its context in relation to other western films. This is not a “traditional” story about the west with recognizable players. It is what comes after these stories- the cruel, modern world that requires more than a white hat and a straight shot. Furthermore, this line reveals the nostalgia that exists both within Bell’s character and society as a whole for the simpler, morally clear past that no longer exists in “these times”. Both No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain display a (relatively) modern generation dealing with a western landscape that is at times harsh, corrupt, and in terms of ideological implications in many ways no longer exists. “We’re in what feels, for a few opening moments at least, like a paradise of spaciousness- except that the desert is littered with wrecked cars and rotting corpses, and the rest of the wide-open spaces have been layered over with highways and motels and all sorts of other precisely observed junk” (O’Brien, 31). This description is less literal in relation to Brokeback Mountain, however its meaning is still relevant; Ennis and Jack hold on to an illusion of freedom and solitude that is shown to be easily penetrated by the eyes of others and the trials and responsibilities of life in the modern world.
There are evidences of the past of the west in the modern landscape; however, they are often a far cry from their original manifestations. In Brokeback Mountain, the rodeo is a representation of distinctly western concepts (riding horses, ranching cattle, etc) that have been idolized and almost...