Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) - Directed by David Miller

I was in a heated debate with someone online recently over the concept of what a “western” was and was not. One of the most interesting aspects of determining characteristics of a genre is just exactly trying to determine what the characteristics are supposed to be. Meaning, how does one define what a western is? Should there be a strict set of conventions that would need to be met? Or should the definition be more broad based? Surely a set of genre conventions for a western would be that the film be set in a frontier landscape, that there be some kind of past historical setting, say from the mid 1850’s to the early 1900s. Maybe someone’s convention is that the film must take place west of the Mississippi River? Or perhaps it must have horses, cowboy hats, and guns involved? I can tell you one thing for sure..... no definition that I, nor anyone else would be able to put down on paper would hold up to my own scrutiny. There are ALWAYS exceptions and films that wouldn’t fit neatly. And if we used the stringiest rules and conventions to define a genre, are we not just applying stereotypes? It could be argued that genre conventions and stereotypes are what actually inspires writers and directors to do great work. They can use said stereotypes to recall the genre, but then transcend, subvert, or recontextualize those stereotypes in such a way that allows us to reimagine or reinvent the genre. I tend to follow this line of thinking when thinking of a genre……it’s more of a “You know it when you see it” proposition.

Case in point, is David Miller's beautiful Lonely Are the Brave, featuring a terrific script, cinematography, and a remarkable, perhaps career best performance by Kirk Douglas. I say career best performance, because it’s the film where he smirks the least and instead infuses his character with a tiredness and detachment that fits his character perfectly. Douglas stars as Jack Burns, a wandering cowhand, who mosies back into town on his steed, Whiskey, except the time is the modern setting.... 1962 in this case. He arrives back to his friend Paul's house, but only finds his friend's wife, Jerry played by Gena Rowlands. They engage in some dialogue, and Jack finds out his friend is in jail for two years. Jack decides to get himself arrested so he can go into the jail and break Paul out. He proceeds to get in a bar fight, and then at the police station punches an officer, getting sentenced to a year in jail. Once in jail, Jack finds his friend Paul, but also finds out his friend isn’t willing to risk getting caught and instead prefers to wait out his two year sentence. Jack breaks out that night anyway, gets back to his Paul's house, grabs his horse and heads for the hills. Only thing is, that escaping on horseback, a la 1880, is not the same as escaping on horseback in 1962. They’re after you with jeeps, airplanes, helicopters and modern communication. It doesn’t take long for the cops to track him down, featuring a showdown on the cliffs of the mountain. Ultimately, time and fate itself catch up with our modern cowboy.

In choosing to use the outmoded (by 1962 standards) concept of the cowboy as loner figure in the west, we find that at once it recalls such figures from other westerns….Shane, The Gunfighter, Will Penny, however, because it places him outside of the typical time frame, it begs the question…. “Is the concept of the western and the cowboy more a state of mind than any time frame or locale suggests?” In this sense, this film says yes. This concept of the loner cowboy wandering aimlessly is so out of touch with modern ways of thinking, it almost comes across as loony insanity by 1962. It strikes the modern world as so strange Jack lives this way, that when he announces to the police at the station that he has no identity cards or driver’s license, they look at him like he’s crazy. But the fact that he embodies the attitude, the mannerisms and the outlook of the loner cowboy is what makes this a western. The film almost makes a  point of the fact that this cowboy is a throwback to old fashioned times, allowing for some funny comments from Walter Matthau as the police chief. But I believe that this film gets at the psychological heart of what makes a western a western, and it’s the state of mind. I complete my argument thus……Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven not only occurs in the right locale, Texas, the right time frame more or less - 1916 (remember The Wild Bunch occurs in 1913), and also concerns a plot (that of the traveling and displaced easterner) very common to the western genre. Yet, it feels really nothing like a western. It doesn’t have the state of mind to me that recalls what the western is all about. Lonely Are the Brave certainly FEELS like a western to me and can claim a right to at least a significant portion in defining the neo-western as a subgenre….that of taking western characters and placing them into modern settings that allows a film to contemplate just how little or how much the west has truly changed.

Based on Edward Abbey’s novel "The Brave Cowboy", the script for the film was written by Dalton Trumbo. It’s a fatalistic and somewhat irreverent script, allowing for dark moments, tearful moments, but also moments of comedic irony, particularly any scene that Matthau appears in. Douglas’ tender moments with Gena Rowlands are magnificent in their ability to distill human emotion and yearning, as are the moments that show us Jack’s love and devotion to his horse, Whiskey. It is said that this was Kirk Douglas’s favorite film of his. It‘s not hard to see why, as I also think it contains Kirk’s most heartfelt and honest acting. So often here, he’s understated and allows his emotions to speak for themself, displaying a wider degree of range than I’ve seen from him in any other movie. His performance is also remarkably physical, particularly when he’s trying to bend the jail bars, or climb the mountainsides with his horse, or create a splint for his shot leg. We feel the strain from him. There are other fine supporting roles here from Matthau, and Rowlands, but it’s Douglas’s film through and through. Lonely Are the Brave is perhaps the best neo-western of its kind. Both recalling, subverting, and reinventing the western genre at the same time. It’s a remarkable film.


Sam Juliano said...

Beautifully-written piece Jon, from that trenchant lead-in (and by George I know well about that "heated" on line discussion and who it was with!) to the framing of Kirk Douglas' naturalistic performance to the qualification of LONELY ARE THE BRAVE a prime example of a neo-western. I do like the film quite a bit, though I didn't pose to include it on my list. Perhaps it's that mental block you allude to, perhaps I just didn't focus on it. But one thing is certain: you've written another superlative essay!

Jon said...

Thanks Sam! yes I'm sure you know what conversation I'm referring to! haha. I do love Douglas here quite a bit. He's great. Matthau though gives a fine deadpan performance too. I love the film.

Hilario said...

This is awesome!