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Editor's Column

What do Cowboys mean? New films take on the Wild West

Do works like Kevin Costner's Horizon, as well as recent films like The Harder They Fall and Nope show a new focus on the American frontier?

Film still of Horizon: An American Saga. Photo: Warners Brothers

This moment in time is all about the cowboy aesthetic. It’s an all-consuming trend in the fashion world, and Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter album is capitalising on a new moment in country music. In the film world, the Western formula has become something of a phenomenon, with everyone from streaming giants to arthouse cinema dipping into the genre.

Emblematic of this onscreen cowboy domination is Kevin Costner, the star of hit television series Yellowstone. This summer, he’s releasing his long-awaited Horizon: An American Saga, which he directed and stars in. The film premiered in May at Cannes and will reach German cinemas in late August. Fans of the rough-riding Montana ranch life of Yellowstone will have a lot to sink their teeth into, as the project’s Western frontier themes are adjacent, but not attached, to the show that Costner also executive produced.

Cinema has used Westerns to re-evaluate American values

Much like Yellowstone and its spin-offs, the new film is focused on settlement life over a period of 15 years, mapping out the often-fraught relationships between the indigenous people and the settlers of the frontier lands. The Cannes press release called the saga “a monumental project about the cost, in terms of war and violence, of the construction and expansion of the United States of America”. It’s a revitalisation of a classic kind of cinema – and of the ability that genre cinema has to captivate us.

Since the early 1900s, cinema has used Westerns to re-evaluate American values; Yellowstone stirred up discourse for being too red-state in its politics. But there’s something in the drama of the genre that seems to hold never-ending interest for both ends of the spectrum. Now more than ever in this homogenised content-driven world, when viewers are beginning to bore of current topics, the romantic notions of the cowboy aesthetic soften the blow of reality, taking us to a soapy, pulpy world. Amid development of ever-sprawling suburbs, watching a cowboy ride out into the distance takes us someplace else.

Film Stills from Horizon: An American Saga. Photo: Warner Brothers

The resurgence of cowboy films and Western television has brought along something new, too – fresh takes and a contemporary eye on the wild, wild West from filmmakers and producers of all backgrounds. The Harder They Fall (2021), an outlaw revenge plot featuring an all-black cast including Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King, was a groundbreaking new era for the old-school genre. Alongside something like Jordan Peele’s Nope, a 2022 neo-Western sci-fi flick, it heralds new aesthetics for the next generation of cowboys.

There’s also the recent podcast, How the West Was ’Cast, where film historian Andrew Patrick Nelson discusses the genre’s push and pull between beloved American legend and protected memory, and its forever-resurging revisionist movement.

There is something truly cinematic and timeless about the Western genre and its subgenres. For those looking to revisit some gems, there’s Chloe Zhao’s 2015 Songs My Brothers Taught Me focusing on reservation life. American auteur Kelly Reichardt has for a long time now been training her quiet, artful indie lens on the frontier with her feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and festival hit First Cow (2019), both explorations of the Oregon trail.

There is something truly cinematic and timeless about the Western genre

And looking ahead, Taylor Sheridon is rebooting his neo-Western Native American FBI drama Wind River, Ari Aster is collaborating with Joaquin Phoenix once more for the dark Western Eddington, the Western drama The Dead Don’t Hurt will feature Viggo Mortensen, and John Hillcoat of The Road fame is adapting another Cormac Mccarthy novel, Blood Meridian. These are but a few in the Hollywood pipeline, and we have definitely not reached the peak of the cowboy universe just yet.