What makes a Western? While film scholars have offered a number of answers to this question — drawing upon structuralist analyses and reception histories alike — we might start where Matthew Carter does, with the frontier myth. In his book Myth of the Western: New Perspectives on Hollywood’s Frontier Narrative (2014), Carter describes the original frontier myth as a projection of American exceptionalism, of men and women who traveled west to bring order to the wilderness of America. Over time, this narrative has been eroded by decades of revisionist historical writing and critical examination, trading in the genre’s triumphalist image of fame and fortune for a political analysis that focuses on imperialism. Even this, Carter argues, is a reductive division of the genre’s history into two major periods — the classical and the revisionist — that denies the swirling cloud of political ideologies behind Westerns of every decade. The Western, even during its classical period, was less a coordinated ideology and more a “mosaic of varied narratives.”
It is here, in the narrative mosaic — layering myths of the modern and the primitive, masculine and feminine, justice and revenge — that filmmaker John Hillcoat has explored the concept of mythology and how desperate men have tried to turn fiction into fact. Hillcoat’s characters actively attempt to secure their own legacies through self-mythology, creatively interpreting their own past. And myth is a frequent topic during his publicity tours. In an interview with Cinema.com, he described The Proposition as “a kind of mythic and deliberately created fiction, not to be bogged down in […] specific historical events.” In conversation with the movie website Bleeding Cool, he referred to the protagonists of Lawless as a band of criminals who are “building their own heroic myth.” During that same press tour, he wrote an editorial for The Huffington Post making explicit his desire to make a film about the “myths of immortality and the transition from one age to another.”
While not his first film, The Proposition was the movie that first offered Hillcoat an opportunity to sink his teeth into the mythology of the Western for the first time. The two sides in The Proposition — one dramatized by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), the other by outlaw Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) — represent more than just order and chaos, modernity and primitivism. Stanley has been tasked by the local townsfolk to hunt down the elusive Burns, who raped and murdered members of a respected family before disappearing in the hills. After a startling and violent shootout in the film’s first few minutes, we see Stanley at a table with Burns’s two younger brothers, offering the middle child — Charlie Burns, played by Guy Pearce as little more than a long strand of sweaty hair — the opportunity to save his younger sibling in exchange for his older brother’s body.
In the classical Western, this narrative would be structured around the choice that Charlie must make between civilization, in the form of the nuclear family, and the disorder of what lies beyond. In the revisionist Western, the choice might be between the sterile nature of modernity and the more organic bonds of brotherhood between outlaws. Hillcoat sees it differently. For Captain Stanley, the stakes at play are higher than that of a single misguided youth, a township, or a domestic order. The stakes are myth itself.
The question of what is being asked of Charlie hangs in the air, unasked and unanswered. Finally, Stanley makes Charlie tell him the stakes. “You want me to kill my brother,” Charlie says. It isn’t a question; it’s a straightforward proposition. But as the film progresses, we begin to understand the bigger goal that Stanley has in mind. Stanley understands that Arthur Burns has taken on a mythical status among both the indigenous people and his townsfolk. In a later scene, where he interrogates captive Aboriginals as to the movements of his prey, they tell Stanley that Arthur is a shapeshifter who can take the form of a dog and howl at the moon. The degree to which Arthur holds sway over this land cannot be ended by a bullet; instead, Stanley needs Arthur to be killed by his own kin, puncturing the mythical qualities that Arthur possesses. “I aim to show that [Arthur’s] a man like any other,” he explains to Charlie. “I aim to hurt him. And what will most hurt him?” Who can retain his legendary status when shot in the back by his younger brother?
The way that myth informs a community is perhaps the single major theme of Hillcoat’s Lawless, an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s family history, The Wettest County in the World. Once again, Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave tell a family story — three brothers who sell moonshine during American Prohibition — and once again, the family is imbued with mythical qualities that give them a great deal of sway in their local communities. More than once in the film, a secondary character will refer to the idea that the Bondurant brothers are invincible. In one scene in particular, Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) — the middle brother and unquestioned leader of the gang — is shocked to discover that he did not walk himself to the hospital after having his throat cut by rivals but was instead driven by Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). “Isn’t that just like you to believe your own damn legend?” she growls.
Much like in The Proposition, the law attempts to rein in Forrest Bondurant by going after his weakest sibling. Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), a visionary who lacks the physical presence to lead the Bondurant men into a war with Prohibition officers, becomes the focus of the antagonistic special deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Despite having many opportunities to kill Jack, Rakes understands that a wounded brother does more damage to Forrest’s reputation than a dead brother. If Jack is killed, Rakes has only made him a martyr and imbued Forrest with a degree of righteousness that may turn others to his cause (we see this later in the film when Rakes loses control and kills Jack’s young partner Cricket). Instead, Rakes uses Jack to prove that Forrest is not as infallible as his reputation would dictate. If he cannot even ensure the safety of his youngest brother, which other of Forrest’s attributes might also fall short of the legends?
While Rakes is occupied with the destruction of one set of myths, Jack is busy creating a mythology of himself as a rumrunner and gangster. Much of Jack’s voiceover describes his awe of the modernized gangster, men like Floyd Banner — played in Lawless by a mustachioed Gary Oldman — who openly flaunted their disregard for the Volstead Act and lived a life of expensive suits and fast cars. Every penny of Jack’s share of the Bondurant profits is funneled into mimicking the lifestyle of men like Banner. Jack even takes his self-mythologizing fantasy one step further by purchasing a camera and staging his own photographs inspired by newspaper covers. He and Cricket take pictures of themselves standing in front of their vehicles, holding guns and doing their best to adopt fierce demeanors that will ensure the legend of the Bondurant clan for generations to come.
Unlike many directors in the Western mode, Hillcoat isn’t really interested in using Lawless to condone or condemn the actions of a band of outlaws; nor does he try to make a grand statement about the role of Prohibition in American history. Instead, his film tells a localized version of history, where the frontier myth of rural Virginia affects how characters make sense of their own historical and cultural status. The film treats both Forrest Bondurant and Floyd Banner as a mixture of objective fact and local legend, and, through the intercessions of both Jack and Charlie Rakes, Lawless becomes the story of one man’s mythographic development.
And then there’s The Road, which departs from many of the semantic traits of the Western — the film takes place in the near future following a nuclear attack on the United States — but still bears many of the hallmarks of the Western genre’s syntax. Returning to Matthew Carter’s Myth of the Western for a moment, we can see the ways in which the frontier myth has “survived the so-called ‘demise’ of the Western through migration into other Hollywood genres” — incorporating the myth by reversing its tenets. Instead of telling a story about the modernization of the wilderness, The Road features characters that bear witness to the collapse of all civilization. How they navigate this transitional period depends on their ability to appropriate the values of the old world through the new myths that they write.
Viggo Mortensen’s character in The Road, identified in the final credits only as “Man,” finds himself in a world where many of the old values are no longer relevant. This doesn’t stop him from trying to filter his current world through the world that has died. “Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice,” he tells the audience, “difficult as they are to remember.” In a particularly dark moment — when he has killed a man to protect his son — he creates a new story to help orient his boy to their place in the new world. “You have to keep carrying the fire,” the father explains, “the fire inside you.” For the child, this is an extremely potent image. Not only does it give the boy a reason to feel good about his place in the world — even in the face of the murders and thefts that the man will commit throughout the course of the film — but it also introduces an element of determinism into the boy’s worldview. Some people have the fire inside them; they have always been the good guys, the boy realizes, and they always will be.
The stories that the man tells are not only for the boy’s benefit, though. The way that the man and his wife coped with life in the postapocalyptic wasteland is a major focus of the film. Night after night, the man dreams of his wife’s final days, struggling to make sense of her decision to abandon her husband and child and give herself over to death. By old standards, what the mother chooses to do is an act of cowardice; but in the new world, her desire to choose the terms with which she faces death smacks of courage and, to a lesser extent, compassion for her son. “I don’t wanna just survive,” she tells her husband, and Hillcoat offers no insight into where his sympathies may lie. “She was gone,” he says, “and the coldness of it was her final gift.” Later, when sharing camp with an old man that the father and the boy encounter on the road, the man will refer to his son as his “god,” betraying his rationalization to keep on going in the face of hardship.
Each of these three films sets out to break down the boundaries between the real and the mythic; or, as Virginia Eubanks writes in “The Mythography of the ‘New’ Frontier,” “between what is and what can be.” And though Hillcoat’s Triple 9 might make for a tempting fourth entry in the cycle — expanding the director’s informal mythological trilogy into a tetralogy — the film struggles to find its footing without a clearly defined historical barrier. Despite the depth of its cast, and the rhythmic energy provided by Dylan Tichenor’s editing, the entirety of Triple 9 exists less as a displacement of Western mythology on modern law enforcement and more as a pastiche of American gangster films. A crew robs a bank and is blackmailed into one more job, a police officer struggles with his need to betray a partner, and a handful of others succumb to the allure of drugs and alcohol as a way to numb the pain of the misdeeds. Where the stories of Hillcoat’s previous films sing with allegory and introspection, Triple 9 is more an exercise in style, meshing poorly with the character-driven atmosphere that Hillcoat typically creates.
This doesn’t mean that myths are absent from the film. The central character, Officer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), is an ideologue made uneasy by the moral compromises necessary to maintain law and order. He comes to the police force by military service and tells his uncle — a detective in another precinct — that he spends his days “trying to make a difference,” though he admits that sounds a little crazy. This is a subtle shift from Hillcoat’s earlier films. Instead of engaging in the act of mythmaking, Allen is trying to perpetuate an outdated idea, one of fraternity and moral certainty in a world devoid of absolutes. He hopes to stand resolute for the man next to him, despite the fact that his partner is actively trying to set him up to be killed in the line of duty. Allen also arrests a local gang member for acts of aggression against the police, despite the fact that the neighborhood where the police are investigating — a rundown block of project buildings — represents an urban war zone. The police have no long-term jurisdiction here. They patrol by day and retreat each night to the safety of the suburbs.
What weakens Hillcoat’s case here is not only the difference in writing, though certainly, losing the nuance of screenwriter/composer Nick Cave does not help his case. Instead, it is the lack of contrast in the mythic boundary. The Proposition, Lawless, and The Road establish clear dividing lines between two distinct eras in world history: the premodern and the modern, the antebellum and postbellum, the present and the future. With Triple 9, Hillcoat finds himself stuck between two modern eras with little to define them. As the characters in the film are picked off one-by-one (by enemies and allies alike), the possibility that film exists “before” or “after” any moment of change in our climate is diminished. If Triple 9 has any lasting message, then, it is this: the very possibility of change — and by extension the mythic stories that we tell to help us transition from the before and after — is precluded by the nihilism of the present. In it, the cycle of history has been closed.
Matthew Monagle is a graduate student in Columbia University’s Film Studies program. He writes a weekly column at Film School Rejects and has previously been published in Playboy and Brooklyn Magazine.