How the west kicked ass!

The tenth in an ongoing series of film conversations where I track my daughter’s reaction after she’s been introduced to one of my favorite movies.

What’s the movie about?

In the town of Silverado, a small-town Sherriff confronts four outlaws who attempt to steal the land of a local cattle rancher.  

Why did I pull this particular movie out of the cabinet?

Because I love this movie – it’s two hours of pure joy and one of the best modern westerns ever made.  It’s a love letter to the big studio westerns of the days of old.  Silverado is to Westerns what Raiders of the Lost Ark was to the adventure serials of early cinema.

What did I think of the movie upon revisiting it?

It holds up completely, it’s fantastic and I love it as much as ever.  The characters are great, the scenery is fantastic, the score is jaunty fun, and while some elements are cliché, that’s the point, those clichés land perfectly.

Why do I like it?

We can start with the cast – it’s LOADED.  Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Linda Hunt, Jeff Goldblum, Brian Denehy and Jeff Fahey.  Throw in an extended cameo from John Cleese and it’s a murderer’s row of talented actors, and all of them are given something interesting to do.  Westerns need a good villain, and Dennehy is the primary antagonist, his Sherriff Cobb is equal parts charming and sinister – at one point he dispatches a former employee by casually gunning him down with one hand while holding a cup of coffee in his other; this is a man whose authority gives him the right to kill with impunity, and he’s happy to exercise said right.

 The four protagonists allied against Cobb include Emmett (Scott Glenn), Payden (Kevin Kline), Mal (Danny Glover) and in his big screen debut Kevin Costner as the slightly immature, but highly energetic Jake.  Costner’s performance is a revelation – he imbues Jake with the energy and mannerisms of a teenager.  He twirls his guns, mocks people, cracks jokes, and even physically acts like a kid with nervous energy, he can’t sit still.  When Jake and Payden are locked in a jail cell, Jake ends up using the top of the cell as a set of monkey-bars, swinging himself around as he’s talking with Payden.  And while his personality is childlike, he’s simultaneously a badass – he’s fast, accurate, and brave (if not terribly smart).  Jake is given several sequences to showcase his talents, most notably when he takes down two bad guys by drawing and firing both guns simultaneously.  It’s a great moment, one of many, Costner has serious charisma – it’s easy to see how this guy went on to become a huge movie star.

Kevin Kline’s Payden is the most complex of the four men.  Throughout the film his backstory is fleshed out, you learn he once rode with Cobb as an outlaw but ended up in jail after trying to save a wounded dog.  Payden is also an aficionado of a good saloon, and he ends up working The Midnight Star, the local watering hole managed by Stella (Linda Hunt).  The relationship between Stella and Payden develops over the course of the film, and eventually it’s Stella who helps Payden realize he can’t stay on the sidelines any longer.  Kline plays Payden as somebody who is constantly fighting against his true nature – he may have been an outlaw once, but now he’s clearly a hero.   When Payden decides to join Mal and Emmett in a mission to rescue Emmett’s nephew, there’s a sweeping shot of Payden’s horse coming in from off to the side as the music swells – it’s one of my all-time favorite moments on film, it gives me goosebumps when I watch it.  The great thing about this scene is the understated way Mal and Emmett react to Payden, instead of surprise, it’s more along the lines of “it’s about time.”   

Scott Glenn plays Emmett as the true white-hat good guy – he walks the straight and narrow but is not afraid to pull a gun when required.  The opening sequence of the film allows Emmet to demonstrate his prowess with both pistol and rifle, including a fun shot where he flips the rifle through the air and catches it.  Danny Glover’s Mal is equally competent, his weapon of choice being a Henry rifle – he’s accurate to the point of being able to shoot off John Cleese’s hat 100 yards away.  Joe Seneca shows up as Mal’s father Ezra, who meets his untimely end at the hands of the evil cattle barons who drove Mal’s family from his lands.  Mal is consumed with slow burning rage, summing up the situation with the repeated catchphrase, “that ain’t right.”

The cinematography and score are fantastic.  Much of the film takes place outside, with the men riding horses across sweeping landscapes, they ford rivers, trot through snow, and gallop into combat – all of it looking fantastic.  Cinematographer John Bailey creates many memorable shots, including a fun moment where the four men gather on a ridge before riding into town for the final gunfight, the town beckoning in the distance.  Bruce Broughton’s score transforms the film into moments of high adventure, the main title in particular is a fantastic piece of music – if you’re not fired up after hearing it, you may be dead inside.

Simply put, this movie kicks all kinds of ass.

Upon rewatch, what didn’t work for me?

Two things, and they’re the same two things which have always bothered me about this movie.  First, Jeff Goldblum’s character “Slick” doesn’t work 100%, his motivations and actions are murky at best.  We first meet Goldblum out on the street in Silverado, he’s a gambler rolling into town to set up an “honest game.”  Later we see him sitting at a card table in the saloon, and when Jake is about to get into a fight, he makes a move to slide a knife out of his boot………why?  I guess you can make the argument he was just getting ready to defend himself, otherwise his intentions are unclear.  Furthermore, he ends up working with the bad guys (specifically setting up Mal to be captured) but there are no scenes which set up his relationship to Cobb or any of the other bad guys.  I get that he’s an opportunist, but it doesn’t totally work………but it doesn’t really matter since he’s JEFF GOLDBLUM and he rolls into town looking so fly…..

Goldblum looking totally fly……luckily not “Brundlefly.”

The other issue is the role Rosanna Arquette plays in the film – her character is named “Hannah,” although her name is not used onscreen  She’s introduced fairly early on as a farmer who’s part of a wagon train heading west; Emmett and Payden both take notice. She’s ostensibly the woman in a love triangle between her, Payden, and Emmett, but the plot doesn’t really go anywhere.  Payden accompanies Hannah to see the land where she can “build things, and make things grow.”  It’s a saccharine moment which feels forced, and then largely abandoned as a plot line.  At the end of the film Hannah comes to the town of Silverado and says goodbye to Emmett and it just doesn’t work.  Apparently, 80% of what was filmed with Arquette ended up on the cutting room floor so her character never plays a significant role nor does she ever have any real tension with either Payden or Emmett.  The one scene she has with Payden is only 2-3 minutes so it doesn’t really matter all that much, but truthfully you could drop the scene entirely and it would make for a better film.    

Both of these issues impact the film significantly, dropping it’s overall rating from 97.5% all the way down to a flat 97%.

Anything else I’d like to add?

I don’t know how intentional it was, but there’s a scene in the film where Emmett has to recover from his injuries, and it’s surprisingly similar to Eastwood’s man with no name recovery in A Fistful of Dollars – I’m assuming it’s an intentional homage.

There were plans for a sequel but it never came to fruition, which is a cinematic crime against humanity……I would have loved to see the continuing adventures of this gang….

Am I still happy I chose this to share with my daughter?

I am, it was incredibly fun to watch this together, and her response to the film confirmed that I did at least one thing right as a father….

  So, what did she think?  Check out the podcast to find out!