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From an Old Pioneer to a Modern Classic: Celebrating ‘Hang ‘Em High’ and ‘Open Range’

Fifty years ago, ‘Hang ‘Em High’ steered the American western away from its old-fashioned optimism; thirty-five years later, Kevin Costner’s ‘Open Range’ briefly pointed it back.

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Once among the most popular of film genres, the western has mostly been put out to pasture as of late. Like The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards, it stands on the outside looking in when it comes to today’s major theatrical releases, old-fashioned and uncivilized, as its knightly gunslingers and grizzled outlaws have been replaced at the box office by spandexed superhero studs who offer a more modern, quippier take on pop culture morality. Adaptation is usually the key to survival, and it’s hard to remember that the western used to be a crack shot at this; Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High and Kevin Costner’s Open Range, both celebrating August anniversaries, provide reminders of the genre’s flexibility in tone and themes. Unfortunately, they also are representative of the difficulties in blazing trails westward when the frontier has all but disappeared.

The path was a little clearer for 1968’s Hang ‘Em High; though certainly on the forefront of the surge of revisionist Hollywood westerns to come, it wasn’t the first to ride into undiscovered country. Productions like High Noon and The Searchers had brought the genre into darker emotional regions (though both ultimately retain traditional optimism), and Sergio Leone’s filthy, dust-covered “Man With No Name” trilogy had paved the way for grittier style and moral apathy. Still, Hang ‘Em High can be credited with finding an acceptable middle ground between the clean-cut battles between good and evil of the 40s and 50s classics, and the stark, near-sociopathic denizens that populate the spaghetti westerns.

Hang ‘Em High‘s tale has good guys and bad ones, to be sure, but the differences between them aren’t as clearly defined; you won’t find any purely villainous Liberty Valance or Frank Miller here. Sure, the lynching of Eastwood’s Jed Cooper at the film’s beginning is a cruel act of injustice, as Jed is innocent of any crime, but the perpetrators are acting under a principle that they and many others believe to be socially acceptable in this untamed land where people struggle to make their living: cattle rustling is punishable by death. Unfortunately, the pick-up posse screws up and gets the wrong guy, and even more unfortunately for them, he lives.

From there, Cooper accepts a post as a Federal Marshall from a noose-crazy judge (based on real-life “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker) in order to legally pursue his revenge under the guise of justice. Mirroring his desire for blood is Rachel, a young woman victimized and in the midst of her own pursuit, albeit with less freedom or means. Right off the bat, this makes Hang ‘Em High feel a little uncomfortable when compared to its predecessors; vengeance isn’t exactly an honorable pursuit for a cowboy audiences are supposed to root for. Cooper is under strict orders to bring his lynchers in alive, but that’s just for show — a bone tossed to newly established “law and order.” He knows the outcome of any trial in these parts will end with the guilty party swinging from a rope, and he’s fine with that. Mostly.

There are complex shades to Hang ‘ Em High that mirror American society’s growing skepticism of government and justice, something rare in oaters of the past. Scandals and corruption had muddied the social waters, and evidence of that is on display in Cooper’s uneasiness with the supposedly dispassionate sentencing his employer doles out. And while he understands Rachel’s need to see her tormentors strung up, he also sees what that obsession has done to her. Up to that point, the strong belief in their own virtue showcased by Hollywood’s cowboys was in tune with the ideals of America itself, government included. In Hang ‘Em High, Cooper isn’t so sure about things anymore.

Nowhere is this more apparent than during the mass hanging scene, where two teenage brothers are set to die for associating themselves with one of Cooper’s lynchers (a weaselly Bruce Dern). Because of events that transpired on the trip back to town with the three outlaws, Cooper has mixed feelings about the boys being hanged. An argument with the judge ends in defeat, so instead of watching the public execution of these criminals — including one of those that wronged him — he decides to bang out his frustration with a prostitute. Satisfaction does not come easily to the internally conflicted.

By the end of Hang ‘Em High, the scales of justice may have been balanced, but does anyone feel good about it? Does anyone feel anything? Pessimism hangs over the film, blocking out former blue skies and casting a cloud that would eventually encompass the genre for years — one that it’s never truly recovered from. Nevertheless, the film still holds up well today, with a straightforward story told in complex ways, and visuals that while aren’t as bold as Leone’s, still stay away from the colorful vistas of John Ford. Its deserved success cemented Clint Eastwood as a major star.

By the time Kevin Costner directed 2003’s Open Range, the western was yesterday’s news. Sure, every now and then a new entry would peek out from behind the cultural obscurity the genre was relegated to and achieve popular status, such as Costner’s own Dances With Wolves (1990), Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), and George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone (1993), but these were exceptions to the rule. The western was a relic of a bygone era, an out-of-touch curiosity for cinephiles to use as bragging rights among themselves. Perhaps America had seen enough of the dreariness of alcoholic-filled saloons, yellow teeth, and endless commentaries on the nature of violence and greed inherent in humankind. Perhaps America needed to know where moral lines were drawn again, even if the ideal didn’t reflect reality. Perhaps America needed something old-fashioned.

Costner gave audiences just that. A love letter to classic westerns, Open Range is shameless in its nostalgia for the way things used to be, when the difference between right and wrong was as plain as the meager speech uttered by simple men of honor. It’s western porn, really. Set against beautiful Montana prairies intersected by picturesque streams, the story finds a group of cattlemen led by Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his right-hand man, Charley (Kevin Costner). Their quaint life involves steering their herd toward lush grazing, always telling the truth, playing cards, and imparting the wisdom of many years on the trail. Sure, Charley may have had a killer’s past, but he’s set himself right, and nothing will tempt him back; he’s a good guy for life now.

When this motley crew wanders into an area that an evil land baron named Baxter considers his turf, both their persons and freedoms come under attack. Baxter isn’t content on encouraging them to pass through, however — he also wants to send a message. He ends up killing one (two, if you count Tig the dog) and severely beating another; this is what happens to commoners who don’t obey his rules. In a way, payback is also at the heart of Open Range, but it’s of a more principled kind. Spearman and Charley don’t want any trouble, but they also don’t want to be subject to others’ control, and they’re certainly not afraid to stand up for their rights as human beings. They fight Baxter not just for their own personal reasons, but also because they despise tyranny and oppression. You can’t get more American than that.

Costner directs the first half of Open Range with a gentle hand that lets the audience breathe nature in, one glistening blade of grass at a time. There is optimism in every shot; the beauty found in this country outweighs the violence it sometimes plays host to. The same goes for the people sparsely populating it. The vast majority of characters are good people who wouldn’t think twice about helping their neighbor, save for the few bullies who might punish them for it — they just need some knights in rawhide armor to remind them of that. Later on, when an impressively chaotic gunfight ensues in the streets and alleys of a nearby town, goodwill overcomes; the world is right again. After decades of watching gravel-voiced gunhands weary from a harsh existence and moral compromise, this positive take was (and still is) refreshing.

For the entirety of Open Range, the audience never doubts which side it’s on, nor why. Charley’s later confessions don’t make a dent in our support — we’ve already seen enough of his actions to know what kind of man he is — and Boss Spearman is nobility personified (his real name of Bluebonnet notwithstanding). The villains are cruel, corrupt, and cowardly until the very end. They may look strong, but their unscrupulousness makes them weak, while Spearman and Charley are shielded by pure integrity. It’s the type of mythic portrayal that John Ford surely would have approved of. This approach had become rare in westerns for far too long, and the warm feeling it produced served as a great reminder of the kind of storytelling the genre used to excel at.

Unabashedly romantic and endearing in its corniness, thrilling in its showdown conclusion, Open Range didn’t push the western forward but instead was content to merely look back and remember the good ol’ days.

* * *

Fifty years ago, Hang ‘Em High steered the American western away from its old-fashioned optimism; thirty-five years later, Kevin Costner’s Open Range briefly pointed it back. The cinematic landscape has changed greatly over that time, and though the wagon train is currently going in circles, the western can be proud of the territory it has covered. More recent entries like True Grit and Bone Tomahawk continue to show the wide variety of stories the genre is capable of telling, and maybe one day it will find new lands to explore. Until then, don’t miss out on these two classics.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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