Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In short: The Long Riders (1980)

There’s something peculiar about the fact that various groups of what most certainly were deeply unpleasant men of the Old American West have become folk heroes. But then, there seems to be a strain in US culture that values independence far more than any moral or ethical values. Of course, in the case of the James-Younger Gang, history did make things quite easy for folklore by involving the even more unpleasant boot of the rich and equally lawless in form of the Pinkertons on the other side, and including the taste of betrayal.

Where folklore went, Hollywood followed very early on, so Walter Hill’s film about the rise and fall of the James and the Youngers is only one particularly fine film about these dubious people among many. And a very, very fine film it is, perhaps one of the best – und certainly one of the more underrated – revisionist Westerns ever made. It’s a film that does little wrong, starting out leisurely in a tone of highly stylized authenticity - which of course isn’t authenticity at all, but a way to make the world a film takes place in feel believable and lived in by real people – that slowly but surely turns darker, culminating in the most surreal Great Northfield Minnesota Raid ever put on screen, as far as I know.

In between, the film walks the line of treating its robber heroes as its heroes without ever turning them completely into the folkloric heroes, nor treating them as mere psychopaths. The James’s and Younger’s exploits are also located in a very specific kind of post-US-Civil-War resentment of poor Southern whites towards the Union, not a place I find particularly comfortable to sympathize with (because, d’oh, slavery) but again something that adds complexity to the characters and positions them in a believable social milieu, something Hill is – to my surprise – just as adept at showing as he is at the violence and the underplayed male friendships. And even though this is quite the male dominated film, Hill also finds room to show women with agency and minds of their own; it just doesn’t help them much.

It’s a humanizing effort that is further supported by some fine acting by the collected Keachs, Carradines, and Quaids that make up its cast in what sounds like stunt casting but really does work out very fine in this case, with the various siblings playing siblings with not exactly surprising sibling chemistry. Ironically, at least for me, for once letting actual relations play relations does feel a bit strange in a movie, because I – and I do imagine I’m not the only one – have so gotten used to see siblings on my screen not looking similar at all, the film’s gesture of particular naturalism does feel weird rather than natural. Which, come to think of it, is quite a trick of Hill to play on his audience.

But then, The Long Riders does play quite a few tricks on its audience, subverting expectations and making things much more messy than they appear at first; that the film is also just a fantastic revisionist western might be one of these tricks.

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