Director David Mackenzie talks about his new film and the life of a classic ‘truly American art form’
Those with an eye for the little print of US presidential elections took note this year that Donald Trump’s favourite film, apparently, is Citizen Kane — cinema’s grandest portrait of doomed wealth. Much less discussed was yet another of his selections: The Good, the Poor and the Ugly, the 1966 spaghetti western in which Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name wreaks havoc among bandits and mercenaries. As an example of American greatness, it was flawed — directed by Rome’s Sergio Leone, the film was largely shot in Spain with an Italian crew. Still, Trump enthused: “It’s difficult. It’s actual. No weak points here.”
When Leone began filming in Might 1966, David Mackenzie was a newborn baby, the son of Scottish parents in the Northumberland village of Corbridge. Now, half a century later, Mackenzie himself is the director of a Western, Hell or High Water. Its planet is modern but filled with Old West echoes: in rural Texas, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) embark on a bankrobbing spree, pursued by a sheriff (Jeff Bridges) on the cusp of retirement. The movie is violent, beautifully written and deeply melancholy, staged in a landscape where functioning cowboys are down to their last generation.
But the Western itself rolls on at a frantic pace. Mackenzie’s film is excellent, but only a single among a glut. The acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is now working on The Sisters Brothers, an adaptation of the novel of Gold Rush assassins by Patrick DeWitt, and an imminent remake of The Magnificent Seven is due to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
These are only the newest examples. In the final year alone there have been grimly macho Oscar-winning Westerns (The Revenant), eye-popping cannibal horror Westerns (Bone Tomahawk), Westerns primarily based on the box workplace appeal of the sons of genre titans (Diablo, starring Scott Eastwood). No Western is a secure commercial bet — let us take a moment to keep in mind 2013’s luckless The Lone Ranger, involving Johnny Depp as Tonto — but the films keep coming. Substantial rewards await those that get it correct. Showered with crucial praise because its premiere at this year’s Cannes festival, Hell or High Water has spent the past three weeks becoming a low-important triumph at the US box office.
Which almost certainly accounts for the all’s-proper-with-the-globe mood of the genial, slightly bookish Mackenzie. We meet in London’s Soho Hotel, its sensible surroundings offset by his wearing the beard of a castaway. His father spent 40 years in the navy: leaving Corbridge as an infant, the young Mackenzie’s Scottish identity was confused by lengthy spells at naval bases in the south of England.
Professionally, his breakthrough came in 2003 with Young Adam, a vivid take on the 1950s beat novel by Glasgow writer Alexander Trocchi his last film prior to Hell or Higher Water was the properly-regarded British prison drama Starred Up. In the course of a busy career producing eclectic films that didn’t often locate their audience, Mackenzie had worked in the US prior to, but not with significant stars. His shoot was arranged about Pine’s commitments to the Star Trek franchise. “I had to get Chris accomplished in two and a half weeks, but that was fine. It was nice. Useful for the outlaw power the brothers have.”
Coming to the Western with the eye of an outsider is not unusual: given that John Maclean directed the significantly-admired Slow West, Mackenzie isn’t even the only Scot to make one in the last year. Nevertheless, the genre has a certain location in the American psyche (Clint Eastwood once known as it a “truly American art form”).
“I wanted to embrace America,” Mackenzie says. “To assimilate, not just get wide-eyed about the landscape.”
The America of Hell or High Water is a spot in trouble, embittered by the Iraq war and the bailouts of 2008, strewn with rusting machines. The political anger is as loud as the gunplay. “The whole film is about loss of faith in institutions,” Mackenzie says — and of course, it arrives at a moment when Donald Trump has been attractive to American voters on specifically that basis. “The timing is accidental, but yes, that is crossed my mind a lot. But I think the film plays to the left and proper.”
For all the camp of early Westerns, with their pristine stetsons and painted sagebrush, the genre often had deep currents. The frontier drama was an origin story for white American audiences — and it is telling how fondly those origins have been presented. With apparently straightforward stories of anarchic menace foiled by the forces of order (a steadfast sheriff or lone gunslinger), the outcome was films that ceaselessly reflected their instances. In the 1950s there was the genius of directors such as John Ford and Anthony Mann, and often painful attitudes to Native Americans in the 1960s Leone and Sam Peckinpah cranked up the bloodshed the 1970s was the era of the politically charged, woozily rueful “revisionist Western”.
And now the genre acts as counter programming to a Hollywood fixated with the bright colours and clean moral lines of superhero motion pictures. It may possibly be helpful here to believe of the relative personalities of Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story trilogy. Where superheroes gleam, the Western is dusty where they take off, the Western is human. At one particular end of issues this meant Quentin Tarantino rolling in the mire of his giggly shoot-em-up The Hateful Eight. At the other, a slew of modern Westerns have lionised the women of the Old West: the explicitly feminist The Maintaining Area, the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, the ill-fated Jane Got A Gun and The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank as a stoic pioneer, a brilliantly rambunctious sprawl that hinted at anything askew from the commence in the American Way.
Offered also that the most celebrated Western of the century remains 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, the story of a gay enjoy affair amongst a rodeo cowboy and a ranch hand, you could take Trump’s fondness for The Good, The Poor and The Ugly as a pointed salute to a less diverse previous. It was almost certainly inevitable that the Western would be brought into this specific election, just as it was that Clint Eastwood would be asked his thoughts, providing a tirade on political correctness. But Eastwood’s films have frequently been much more nuanced than his interviews: his 1992 western Unforgiven is one of the most deeply sceptical films about guns and manhood ever made.
Mackenzie and I finish up swapping examples of modern Westerns that may possibly not appear like Westerns. I mention American Sniper, Eastwood’s combustible biography of the Navy Seal Chris Kyle he brings up American Honey, the electric new road movie by British director Andrea Arnold. But the Western is at the moment so in vogue, it can mainly just be itself.
“It’s cyclical,” Mackenzie says. “Ten years ago I attempted to get a Western produced and was told that no a single went to see them. Now everyone desires them. In fact, while it is still attainable, I want to do an additional.”
‘Hell or Higher Water’ is released in the UK on September 9
Photographs: Alamy Sony Images Getty images Lionsgate
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