Cowbnoys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)


During the climactic battle sequence in “Cowboys & Aliens,” in which Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) leads a rag-tag team of Indians and outlaws in an attack on an alien spaceship ensconced in the desert, while Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), having freed the town captives within, crawl deeper into the spaceship to blow it up, I was thinking the following:

Hey, there are nine lights on this side of the theater while the other side has only eight. Is that right? Yep, only eight. Where’s the missing one? Five before the exit sign on each side. That’s not it. But four after the exit sign here and only three there. And there it is. The top light is out. They should fix that.

Not a good sign.

The movie opens in a scabby section of the American Southwest, pans right, and, boom, up pops Lonergan. He’s in a panic and in pain. He reaches for his right side, where he’s bleeding, when he notices the high-tech metal bracelet on his left wrist. He claws at it, uses a rock to try to bash it off. Captive animals, tagged and released into the wild, come to mind.

Then three grubby men ride into view, take him for an escaped outlaw, and get ready to kill him for the bounty. “It’s not your lucky day, stranger,” the clan leader says. That “stranger” part is correct, since Lonergan doesn’t even know his own name, but the rest? The reverse. Lonergan attacks and kills all three, takes their boots, belts and guns, and heads off into the nearby town of Absolution to fix himself up.

Not a bad open, I thought. A classic western stranger. A new “man with no name.” Plus Daniel Craig is cool and intense in the usual Daniel Craig way.

In Absolution, he keeps running into interesting characters played by interesting character actors: Meacham (Clancy Brown), the town preacher, and moral authority of the film; Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) the spoiled son of Woodrow, who likes to shoot up the town; Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town saloonkeeper and everyman, who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun and thus can’t defend himself or his Mexican wife; and Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), sighing, and trying to keep the peace.

I was even beginning to enjoy myself. I’d always liked the whole “cowboys and aliens” concept. As soon as I heard it, I thought: Of course. If aliens land, why would they only land in the 20th century? Why couldn’t they land earlier when we were truly, hopelessly outmatched? Pit them against grubby men with Colt revolvers. Combine the classic “stranger” narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The movie, I knew, had a low Rotten Tomatoes score, 44%, but, in the darkened theater, I was beginning to think the critics were wrong.

Then the movie began to go wrong.

At one point, Meacham says to Jake, “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things,” which is a bit too all-encompassing for the circumstances. It’s the movie announcing its theme as subtly as a fifth grader writing a theme paper.

There’s a snatch of dialogue between Doc and his wife that suggests an unnecessary, unwelcome backstory. These begin to multiply. Col. Dolarhyde spoils one son but ignores the other, Nate Colorado (Adam Beach), an Indian orphan from a long-ago attack whom he’s raised without love or attention. Sheriff Taggart has a grandson who keeps tagging along and taking up valuable screen time. Doc is taught to learn to shoot a gun.

Plus Jake is not only not “a man with no name” but a man with several pasts. He’s an outlaw who led a gang that robbed gold from Dolarhyde. No, wait, he abandoned that gang for the woman he loved, a former whore. No, wait, he finally remembers the following scene. He comes home, splashes gold pieces on the kitchen table, and his wife, the former whore, objects.

She: You gotta take it back.
He: Like hell I will.
She: That’s blood money!
He: That’s gonna get us what we need!

Of all the scenes to remember, he has to remember the one with such lousy dialogue.

After aliens attack and lasso townsfolk from their spaceships, and Jake downs one such ship with the high-tech gadget on his wrist—he and his wife were taken before, we find out; he escaped—a posse is formed to track the wounded alien. Dolarhyde wants his son back, Doc his wife, the boy his grandfather, so they do what they know, form a posse, even as they’re unsure what they’re tracking. Is it a demon? Is God punishing them? They have no clue what’s going on but they act as if they’re familiar with the tropes of the genres. The whole alienness of the situation should’ve increased tenfold. They should’ve gotten on their knees and prayed to God. They should’ve clung to Meacham, the preacher, and begged for understanding.

Is all the good dialogue in the movie Meacham’s? As they ride along, slowly, Doc complains about his life as if he were a twentysomething liberal arts grad, and suggests, from the evidence, that there’s either no God or one who doesn’t care about him. Meacham responds: “You’ve got to earn His presence; you’ve got to recognize it; then you’ve got to act on it.” Wow. That’s pretty good for a preacher in the middle of a posse. So who’s the first to die? Meacham, of course. “We’re screwed now,” I thought.

Indeed. The aliens, it turns out, are merely scouts after our gold, and they’re kidnapping our people to see what it takes to kill us, all of us, but that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem with the movie is this: When deciding between doing what’s true for the characters or what furthers the clichés of the genre, the filmmakers, director Jon Favreau and his six screenwriters, always opt for the latter. They’re not interested in the perspective of their 19th-century characters; they’re only interested in the perspective of their 21st-century audience. Dolarhyde and Lonergan are assholes not because life is hard but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name is a giveaway. The theme Meacham stated earlier is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Doc, like Sgt. Powell in “Die Hard,” has to shoot to kill at just the right moment. Dolarhyde has to bond with the boy; he has to come to an understanding with Nate; he has to save the Indian chief so the two, in the midst of battle, can give each other a nod of understanding.

It’s all so false and awful that the difference between the number of lights on each side of the theater suddenly seems like a fascinating area for your mind to go.

—August 1, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard