From Neil Campbell:
Some Thoughts on post-Westerns Sin Nombre and Frozen River:
The ‘post-industrial’ post-Western.
The website ‘Five in Focus’ was one of the first to recognize the ways by which Sin Nombre had ‘reinvented the western’. In a piece entitled ‘Sin Nombre’s Westerns’ it argues that the film ‘reinvents the western––our [ie USA’s] most classic genre of people striking out for a better life’. It continues: ‘The elements are all there––the vast landscapes, the frontier justice, the gangs of outlaws, and a train noisily slicing through the frontier. They are just re-organized in a different way.’ Equally, in ‘The L Magazine’ Benjamin Sutton wrote,
Looks can be deceiving, though, and just because there aren’t any stirrups, 10-gallon hats and dusty Main Street showdowns in theaters right now doesn’t mean the Western’s been put out to pasture. Its setting has simply shifted from the Southwest to South of the Mexican border, its protagonists no longer tight-lipped Hollywood hunks, but young, desperate dreamers scrambling North from Latin America. Immigration movies are the new Westerns, and Sin Nombre is the refashioned genre’s latest iteration.
In a recent article in The Guardian (17th July, 2009), however, Xan Brooks argues that this trend for ‘refashioned’ ‘new Westerns’ extends to other points of the compass as well:
The western, it transpires, has not died out. It has simply changed shape, colour and compass point … Sin Nombre focuses on a bunch of imperilled Central American migrants who hop a train to Texas, travelling to America ‘not in God’s hands, but in the hands of the devil’. In Frozen River, Melissa Leo plays a single mum who helps the local Mohawk tribe smuggle Pakistani immigrants across the Canadian border. One film is heading north; the other headed south. Both, according to their directors, are essentially westerns. (4)
These brief, astute comments remind us that the post-Western’s chameleon shape-shifting continues deep into the twenty-first century, looking to re-energize its generic elements into new and different patterns. Frozen River’s story is of the north country of New York state, near the little city of Massena on the St. Lawrence River and the Mohawk Nation reserve at Akwesasne – “the rez” – that straddles both the mile-wide river and the US-Canadian border. Melissa Leo (its leading actress) was advised by the director Courtney Hunt to watch John Wayne’s ‘reined in’ style of acting and in many other ways both her film and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre reflect the intertextual influences of the Western on contemporary filmmaking.
‘The western is the story of America,’ says Courtney Hunt, ‘in that the story of America is the story of migrants, of people moving forward. The original settlers saw the wilderness and thought “That’s our backyard” – we just haven’t got to the end of it yet.’ (4) Elsewhere Hunt has amplified these comments:
Well, you think of the classic American story venturing into that which is lawless territory. A border is lawless territory. The Wild West was lawless and there was a sense that anything could happen. And that’s sort of the feeling with “Frozen River.” These two women are in a space that doesn’t have any law and order. And so that’s one big thing. And the other thing is just the style of John Wayne’s acting, which I had recommended that Melissa [Leo] look to as a guide. John Wayne was really amazing at what he didn’t do, and how much his lack of expression was really full of emotion.
As Brooks goes on to say in his piece,
The parallels don’t stop with the acting. Sergio Leone claimed that the best westerns operate in a lawless terrain ‘where human life has no value’. This seems a fair summation of both Sin Nombre and Frozen River, which replace covered wagons with freight trains and car boots, white settlers with Asian migrants and Mexican wetbacks – and yet still keep the bandits reassuringly in situ. (4)
Sin Nombre’s director Fukunaga says ‘You’ve got the wagon train, and the outlaws, and the brooding, loner hero. Plus the whole notion of immigrants crossing a wild country. That’s a purely western story.’ (4) In another interview he adds to this, ‘My producer, Amy Kaufman and I have differing points of view on whether the structure of the film could be described as a Western or as a Greek tragedy, I’m more for the Western …’
In discussing his impetus for the film and for its cinematic style, Fukunaga is again drawn to the significance of the Western genre, calling it ‘a good old-fashioned post-industrial Western tale of redemption’ and adding ‘The images conjured up a post-industrial version of our own iconic Wild West, but instead of covered wagons it was a freight train, and instead of the classic Hollywood version of “the savages” it was marauding bandits and tattoo-covered gang members who seemed to have been pulled from general casting in Mad Max. And yet this wasn’t the Wild West; it was real and it was happening, is still happening, just south of our border. This was the story I wanted to tell’.
Although his reference points are often classic Westerns, there is also his awareness of later excursions into the genre, in particular through his admiration for the work of Terrence Malick whose Days of Heavens is clearly evident in Sin Nombre, both through the iconic use of immigrant journeys via train, and in his sweeping panoramas resembling the ‘magic hour’ cinematography of Nestor Almendros for Malick. In another interview Fukunaga argues that his structural model was the journey — it’s basically its own version of a road film. But the elements I liked in terms of how to treat it cinematically were drawn from westerns, so I watched Peckinpah films, some Ford and Huston, and got a sense of how they covered landscape. Although I wasn’t going to be doing these grandiose Utah Cinemascope shots, I wanted a few wide shots. I got two or three near the end. [laugh] But I think of it as a post-industrial wild west story, if not a western.
Hunt and Fukunaga’s tales play out in a tangled, messy present, spotlighting a modern strain of frontier lawlessness and implicitly debunking the notion of America as a promised land of unbridled opportunity. They do not simply breathe new life into the genre. They may also have reclaimed it for a fresh generation of American pioneers. (4)
So long as there is border country, and huddled masses to move across it, there will always be a place for the big-screen western. (4)