How the West Was Worn-Out
Sam Emerson/Columbia Pictures
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Remakes interest because, in making an old story new, they tell us what is important now. “The Magnificent Seven” is of course a remake of a remake – and “The Seven Samurai” remains one of the most influential films in cinema. It was one of the first to show the assembling of a team for a fight against a superior enemy, which is all cinema (especially the superhero kind) seems to be these days. When it’s done again with this level of expertise and charm, it’s easy to overlook the things we should be focusing on.
Despicable capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard in the part he was born to play) has a mine at the end of a valley otherwise owned by a small town of farmers. He informs them, at gunpoint, that their choices are to sell him their land cheaply or die; when they protest, several are killed in cold blood, including one played by Matt Bomer. His widow, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, who bears a strong resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), therefore has approximately the best motivation for revenge ever put on screen.
What luck – she instantly finds Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), a renowned bounty hunter who has no difficulty in recruiting the others: card-sharp ex-soldier Faraday (Chris Pratt, doing his “Guardians of the Galaxy” character); sniper-with-PTSD Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, also in the part he was born to play, at last); knife thrower and stoner Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun); outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); shambling mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and lonely Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, who looks great but has little to do and less motivation to do it). The plot unravels exactly as you would suspect, with almost no cliché of the western genre forgotten. Does someone recite Bible verses during hand-to-hand combat? Does someone fling a gun at an unarmed man’s feet and snarl, “Pick it up”? Can someone unexpected speak Comanche? Is there a preparation montage with small moments of comedy? Does someone leave despite being called “a yellow-bellied sap-sucking coward” but return at the most opportune moment? Does the Mexican character speak fluent English except when he is cursing? Are there several scenes where guns are dick metaphors? Check, check, check. The script by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk wears all this very lightly, but if the acting wasn’t as good as it is the movie would be a real snore. Someone give Jo Edna Boldin, Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu, who cast the film, an award.
The violence isn’t too graphic and is taken seriously, which is a big improvement on a lot of recent Hollywood cinema which treats death as an plot inconvenience at best or broad comedy at worst. At all times the action is clear, and the characterization makes it easy to keep everyone and what he or she is doing straight. James Horner scored the movie as a surprise – it wasn’t found until after his death – and the music is solid if occasionally overbearing. The movie looks great too, especially in Imax, even though it’s not very visually interesting (despite the scenery). There’s too much action to get through for the camerawork to get interesting.
Has Mr. Washington ever been done a bad job onscreen? He’s been in bad movies but over the decades he’s never been bad in them. There’s a shot of his face towards the end (you’ll know the one) where he reminds us all what a true movie star is. Mr. D’Onofrio is so rococo that the other characters comment on it, but he’s also the only one whose character feels like someone we haven’t seen in a movie before. His final scene is strange and startling, both for its originality and its trueness to the character. That’s something special. Mr. Hawke’s good looks have allowed him to skate for decades, and his choice to reunite with director Antoine Fuqua is the smartest decision he has made for a while. It is to be regretted that the subtext of Robicheaux’s relationship with Rocks (Mr. Lee’s part is thankless and fairly problematic) was not allowed to speak its name. But on the other hand, to show a Confederate sharpshooter in a gay relationship with an Asian man would draw explicit attention to the issues this movie prefers to glide over.
The first, of course, is race. Mr. Vasquez’s character is so thinly drawn he doesn’t even get a first name. Someone who collected 300 “scalps” in the Indian wars can casually call Red Harvest ‘“a little shit” all in good fun, and we’re meant to chuckle along. Chisholm and Robicheaux are shown to be old friends but there’s no explanation as to how. It’s made explicit that Faraday also fought in the War of Northern Aggression, but he then refers to the Battle of Antietam, which the Confederacy called the Battle of Sharpsburg. This inconsistency is something that most of the kids in the audience won’t notice. We’re not meant to wonder why Faraday also doesn’t blink at working for a black man. And when the entire town stops and stares at Chisholm it’s due to his considerable reputation and not his skin color. It is bizarre to market the movie as a true reflection of race in the Old West and then never mention race, except at the very end. Is the fact that racism is a thing meant to be a big shock? The evilness of Bogue is well established; it’s strange that his racism is treated as the evil cherry on top. Are we meant to believe that only the most evil people do racist things? That otherwise society is fair and equal? Mr. Washington has a truly powerful speech at the finale, but it’s ham-fisted and then literally cut short. The fact that all this is an improvement to what we normally see in a Hollywood film is incredibly depressing.
The second issue is that of women. Emma is the only one with more than five lines; and even though she is the catalyst for everything, she isn’t one of the seven. Why isn’t she the most magnificent of them? There is nothing she can't do: for example serve dinner to the men, maintain total calm as a rooftop sniper, sob over Mr. Bomer's grave and look awesome in a doorway with her hair all blowy. Otherwise some female extras are murdered; one puts her baby down long enough to do some mending; and there are multiple scenes where scantily-clad ladies provide window dressing. That’s it. So there’s not a whisper of sex in the movie, either. Even Faraday, who straight-facedly at one point refers to himself as “the world’s greatest lover,” is introduced by asking a bar girl for, um, a shoulder rub. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore is too busy zooming in on guns nestling in hip holsters (which makes the coyness about the gayness even weirder) to objectify any women. In the first two adaptations of this story women were treated abominably, but at least they were there as living people, not props. In this one, all the difficult issues of how women were treated in the Old West have simply been ignored, while a rainbow coalition of men congratulate themselves on using a single token to show how advanced they are. In this context, the final act in the film is a strange choice, which ends the movie on a mystifying note. This might be an accurate reflection of where we are now, but it’s in no way a level up.