Way back in the summer of 2010, the InRO staff planned a series of articles that each paired two recent (i.e. post-2000) Westerns. The project fell through, but not before I’d written my assignment: a retrospective on Seraphim Falls and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. My editor at InRO recently posted that article to celebrate the release of Meek’s Cutoff.
The spectre of death is as present in the Western genre as leather, horses and guns, and it nearly always comes in the form of homicide. Characters don’t die by accident or illness — if you own a ranch or a saloon in the classic American West, or if you wear a badge or ride where the wind takes you, expect to meet your maker with the help of a bullet. Death at the hands of another is inscribed onto every plot and every finale, a solution to treachery and wrongdoing of all stripes, an art practiced by the good and the bad. The genre’s images of death are loud, dusty and sudden, but they aren’t always as cut and dried as a gunshot at high noon. In some Westerns, death isn’t a full stop but a beginning, of sorts. The leather and the dust lose materiality and give way to the supernatural, while the landscape onscreen reveals itself to be a halfway space between the hard world and the afterlife, where matter itself is doubtful, and where characters set for a time to sort through their differences, which almost always amount to questions of honor and revenge.