For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:
Silverado (1985) – dir. Lawrence Kasdan
JOSH: Our last Random Viewing was a zombie movie. Our next one, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 film Silverado was, at the time of its release, from something of a zombie genre. It’s easy to forget now, when the western is in relatively good standing thanks to the likes of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, but in 1985 it was a genre on the verge of extinction. From the 30s through the early 70s it was one of the backbones of the American film industry, evolving from the B-westerns of the silent era and 1930s to the A-list prestige pictures of John Ford, William Wellman, and Howard Hawks in the 40s, the psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher in the 50s, the radical Italian (aka Spaghetti) westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci in the 60s, and the revisionist American westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman in the 70s. It was with that last evolutionary twist that the genre’s commercial prospects finally faltered.
The major westerns of the 70s largely reflected the growing cynicism, ambiguity and disillusionment that was rampant in the nation at large, and while that movement produced more honest westerns, and never stopped producing great ones, it carried it far away from its populist roots. And it did so at a time when popular tastes were turning away from westerns anyway, even on TV, where the great classics of the 50s and 60s gave way to crime dramas in the 70s and 80s. Still, the genre endured, if tenuously, until the calamitous failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980 – a $40m picture that grossed under $5m at the box office, nearly put MGM out of business, effectively ended the New Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s, and, most relevant to this discussion, wiped the western off the map.
Which brings us to 1985. Silverado was in fact the second of two major studio westerns to come out in the summer of ’85. The first was Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, an eccentric supernatural western about a mysterious loner known only as The Preacher, who may or may not be a ghost, who rides into a mining camp one day to help the humble miners there fight back against a ruthless enemy. With its heavy religious overtones and oddball energy, Pale Rider’s existence was a testament more to Eastwood’s star power than the studio’s interest in reviving the ailing western. And its financial success (it was the second highest grossing western of the 80s, not that there was much competition) was a confirmation of Eastwood’s star power, and the unique connection his 20-plus year history in the genre gave him with audiences.
In other words, Pale Rider was a big deal, but it was mostly a big deal for Clint Eastwood, and I doubt anyone thought that it was going to launch the next wave of westerns. I don’t know for certain that such an expectation hung over Silverado either, but it certainly plays like a film that was trying to single-handedly rekindle the mass audience’s love for the genre. And how does it to do that?
Well, it’s fun, for starters. Really fun. Silverado is, first and foremost, a pure entertainment, fun in a simple way that harkens back decades, consciously sidestepping and downplaying the thematic complexity and moral ambiguity that had snaked its way into the genre’s DNA over time. Silverado is your classic black hats vs. white hats, farmers vs. ranchers, good vs. evil western. It’s about four men who meet on the road to Silverado – brothers Emmett (Scott Glenn) and Jake (Kevin Costner), loner Paden (Kevin Kline), and would be farmer Mal (Danny Glover). It takes us an hour to actually get to Silverado, because first there are rescues, shootouts, prison breaks, saloon showdowns, backstories to get sorted out, conflicts to set up. It feels like Kasdan was intent on packing as many beloved tropes of the classical western into this film as he possibly can. It also feels like maybe a bit too much at times, like he maybe should have been just a little bit choosier. This is not to say that any of it is bad, because it’s not. Fact is, if you gave me a pair of scissors and told me to go cut something out it wouldn’t be an easy decision. Still, the opening hour does feel overextended, and it drags the movie out to 133 minutes, which no self-respecting classical western ought to be.
That said, once the boys arrive in Silverado, oh boy does this thing start to sing. Paden is quickly put into the service of Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), an old frenemy who is himself the hired muscle for a local cattle baron named MacKendrick, whose violent agitation toward various local farmers threatens Mal, Emmett and Jake and all the people they love and care for. I won’t go too much further into the plot just yet. There’s nothing on a plot level that will surprise anyone with even a glancing familiarity with the genre, anyway. But as we’ve said a few times now in this series (and likely will continue to say), it’s the way these elements are thrown together that makes this such an enjoyable experience.
Case in point, there’s a grand tradition of westerns about the struggle to build a decent, civic-minded community out on the lawless plains, a society of law and order and human decency, and the way that often forces people to organize and fight back against the encroaching abuses of the powerful. There’s a wonderful sense of that developing community spirit in Silverado, built one person – some good, some not so good – at a time. There’s Stella the saloon operator (Linda Hunt); the duplicitous gambler, played by Jeff Goldblum in a fabulous fur coat; the hired muscle played by the likes of Jeff Fahey; the noble settlers played by Roseanna Arquette and Joe Seneca.
I loved, for example, the simple sequence that follows from the town’s land office being set on fire. The town people spring into action to fight the fire, with Stella barking out orders despite her diminutive stature, and all the big strong men following those orders without question. It says a lot about what this town is, who they respect and why, without saying anything, and it’s indicative of the care and passion that Kasdan brings to every element of this film. The relationships feel real, the world feels lived in, there’s a palpable history pulsing off the screen. It’s good, good stuff.
I could go, and likely will later, but I know you liked Silverado a whole lot too, Ben, so let’s hear what you have to say for a spell, while I go tip back my chair, put my feet up on the deck rail, and take a break from this harsh mid-day sun…
BEN: It’s funny, we both loved this movie but I think I loved the first half of the film more, while you prefered the second half, which is fine because both halves are amazing. This is going to be a fun one to discuss, because a lot of the things you just brought up were barely on my radar, and yet still fantastic parts of the film. There’s just so much film here to love that there’s something here for everyone. I even said to you while I was watching Silverado that it felt like I was watching four movies at once AND THEY WERE ALL GOOD.
It should be no surprise that this blockbuster reinvention of a forgotten genre just happened to come from Lawrence Kasdan, a little writer you might remember for masterfully reinventing two other forgotten genres a couple years prior — the space opera and the adventure serial — in two films you may have heard of — Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. Yeah, I know. Nobody I know loves those movies. Kasdan tried to put that same energy he put into Star Wars and Indiana Jones into reinventing the Western yet again, and I think he succeeded admirably. Silverado is from start to finish an unbelievably fun ride, like what Westworld would probably feel like if the robots weren’t always trying to kill you.
One of the things I love so much about this film is how tight and economical the writing is. As we’ve both already mentioned, there’s a lot going on in this movie and it sometimes feels like there are a billion characters to keep track of, and yet you know everything you need to know about each character after their first scene. Every scene, every set piece, is crafted to tell you something about the characters. Nothing seems frivolous or unnecessarily tacked on. Everything has its purpose, even if you’re not entirely sure what that is as you’re watching it unfold.
It’s a filmmaking truism that you should be able to tell everything you need to know about a movie by its opening scene, and that’s definitely true with Silverado. We open on Emmett asleep in a shack. Some men ambush him and attempt to gun him down. We barely get a glimpse of any of his attackers. Instead, bullet holes rip through the walls, letting in beams of light. We have no idea where this shack is or what it’s really used for or why these guys want to kill Emmett or even who Emmett is, but Emmett knows that he has to act fast or he’s dead, and that’s all we really need to know. The scene is confusing, but not in how the scene is shot. We, the audience, don’t know what is going on, but Emmett takes each of them down like a pro, following the locations of the holes in the walls and the sounds outside to take each gunman down without even seeing their faces. It’s claustrophobic, chaotic, terrifying and yet thrilling to see someone dominate his attackers from an obvious place of disadvantage. And then, if just to let you know that this film is going to incorporate all the best things that make up a Western, Emmett goes into the doorway and we get the classic The Searchers doorway shot, where the darkness of the room suddenly expands into the vast majesty that is the plains and mountains of the Wild West.
In this movie, action is always driven by character. The sequence where all four main characters first meet is a great example of how each character’s inner drives and desires push them together and to the inevitable outcome of the film. Paden has stuck around with Emmett out of gratitude and obligation after Emmett saved him from certain death, being tied up and stranded in the desert, but when he discovers that the person Emmett road into town to find is Emmett’s brother Jake, and said brother is set to hang the next morning for kissing the wrong girl, Paden thinks staging a jailbreak to bust Jake loose is a bridge too far for him and he says his goodbyes to Emmett. It doesn’t take long before Paden finds himself in a saloon, however, and it takes him even less time to land in jail for shooting the man who stole his favorite hat. So now Paden is stuck in the same jail cell as Jake, and Jake correctly guessed his brother’s code that he’d be breaking him out of jail at dawn and wants Paden to help him break out. Paden the gambler didn’t want to take a chance earlier by helping Emmett, and now here he is after a bit of bad luck, right in the jail cell where he needs to be, forced into doing what he originally didn’t want to be a part of.
What I love about the jailbreak is that it’s doomed to fail and only succeeds if all four men are where they are, doing what they need to be doing, when they need to do it. Despite the fact that Emmett is “breaking them out”, he actually has nothing to do with the actual break out. He’s busy causing a distraction to pull the sheriff away from the jail. (Quick side note: The sheriff is played by John Cleese, who does an amazing job of exuding pompous arrogance. He’s the kind of guy who feels the need to point out the obvious that he’s British, as if he wants everyone to know how much better he is than everyone else. My favorite subtle little character detail is in a quick scene where you see him playing chess with one of his deputies, only for him to spin the board around after playing his move, indicating he was actually playing himself the whole time. Nothing’s said, and it’s one of those blink and you’ll miss it details, but in one quick little moment you can tell that he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, and his only true worthy opponent is himself. We’ll see how that all works out for him later.)
Meanwhile, it’s up to Jake (and now Paden) to bust himself out. Jake tests out hiding under the bunk. He then picks the lock. When the deputy comes in to check on them and sees the door open and Jake missing, he (and we, the audience) surmise that Jake’s hiding under the bed. Thinking he’s clever for figuring out the roose, the deputy tells Paden to move towards the bars so he can handcuff him and then dig Jake out from under the bed. But, in a surprise to him and us, Jake’s actually been hiding behind Paden the whole time, and a third fist comes flying out of Paden’s jacket to take out the guard.
Jake and Paden meet up with Emmett and the three of them ride out of town with a posse close behind them. It looks like they all might get caught, that is until Mal shows up. Rewinding things for a moment, before all this jail stuff started Emmett and Paden first met Mal at the saloon, where the racist townsfolk tried to kick Mal out for the horrible crime of wanting a glass of whiskey and a warm place to sleep after so many days on the range. As three men gang up on Mal, Paden comments on how bad the odds are, only for Emmett to ask, “Yeah, but for who?” Emmett can see exactly who Mal is, and Mal proves him right by easily kicking the asses of his assailants. The sheriff is about to lock him up when Emmett vouches for Mal that he was merely defending himself against his attackers. While Mal doesn’t end up in jail (or worse) he is kicked out of town, because, well, they’re super racist. Cut back to Jake, Paden, and Emmett racing away from the posse. All seems lost until someone starts firing at the posse from a distance. Turns out Mal has been watching the whole thing and decides to help these guys out for not being dicks earlier.
So let’s break this all down. Emmett might not have found out that his brother was going to hang in the morning if Mal hadn’t gotten into a bar fight, bringing the sheriff into the picture. Jake’s breakout doesn’t work if Paden doesn’t help. Paden doesn’t want to help, but his love of saloons and his hat results in him ending up in the same jail cell as Jake, in the perfect place to help him break out. The two of them don’t get the chance to ambush the deputy if Emmett doesn’t create the distraction, and the three of them don’t get away if Emmett hadn’t shown kindness to Mal earlier. Despite the four of them having their own wants and desires that should take them away from each other, it’s those same wants and desires that keep pushing them back together again and again. All roads in this story lead to Silverado.
That’s just one of my favorite character beats in this story. There’s many, many more. This movie is all about character, not just in the literal sense, but also in the moral sense. All of our protagonists in this film have done morally questionable things in their past, but what makes them the “good guys” in this story is their drive to look out for the little guy and when push comes to shove, do the right thing, refusing to push around others just because they can.
What were some of your favorite character beats, Josh? And how great a screenplay is this?
JOSH: It’s a pretty damn great screenplay. You’re right that Silverado is rife with smart, illuminating, often delightful character beats, but that bit you mentioned about Jake hiding behind Paden in the prison really crystallizes for me what’s so much fun about Silverado – the obvious pleasure Kasdan takes in playing with our expectations, setting up a scene one way and then flipping it at the last second.
One of my favorite examples of that is later on, when Emmett is out taking target practice. This is a scene out of any number of westerns – the gunslinger honing his craft by shooting at empty cans, bottles, that sort of thing. Here Emmett first practices with his rifle, firing one shot after another until he’s out of bullets. He walks twenty or thirty feet back to his horse, secures the rifle on his saddle, walks the twenty or thirty feet away from the horse again, and empties his six-shooter, hitting a tin can over and over, popping it up into the air. We’ve all seen it a million times before, and I’m pretty sure that in every single one of those million times, the scene simply ends with a cut to the next scene. The shooter has proven his bona fides, now it’s on to the main event. Not so here, because what we know, but Emmett doesn’t, is that Sheriff Cobb has sent some men to kill him. So just as Emmett is finishing off his target practice – and most importantly, just after he has emptied his gun of bullets – one of Cobb’s deputies emerges from hiding and gleefully shouts, “You’re empty, mister!” And just like that, this badass posturing becomes a moment of mortal danger. Emmett breaks for his horse, but another deputy appears and lassoes Emmett to the ground. He’s run over by a horse – twice – and would almost certainly end up dead, except that Mal appears at the last minute to save the day.
This scene is really simple, but I got a kick out of how Kasdan subverts the invincibility of the badass gunfighter by having him… run out of bullets. And I loved that Kasdan and Scott Glenn allow us to see Emmett realize what a colossal mistake he’s made.
One of my favorite moments in Silverado is Sheriff Cobb’s monologue about Paden and the dog. Cobb describes how, following a robbery they pulled together, Paden allowed himself to be captured so he could care for an injured dog. A dog, Cobb says with a weary sigh, that Paden didn’t even like. At first, it seems like Cobb’s objection is just that Paden gave in to a sentimental impulse, but it quickly becomes clear that Cobb felt betrayed by Paden’s decision. “I thought we were pals after all the riding we’d done together,” Paden says, growing wistful. “All of a sudden he was more worried about some mutt.”
Sheriff Cobb is a great villain, complex and sly and dangerous. And it’s a great performance by Dennehy. He’s constantly sitting or slouching, leaning against chairs or on the bar at the local saloon. Always minimizing himself to seem less threatening, and with his fluffy white hair, twinkling eyes, dignified beard, you could forgive yourself if you let yourself be seduced into thinking he wasn’t so bad. Like an old west Thanos, a lot of what he says makes a certain amount of sense, as long as you don’t think about the results Cobb has in mind, or the methods he plans to use to achieve them. After the murder of a land supervisor, he tells Paden, who by now is well on his way to turning against his old partner in crime, not to rock the boat. “Just give it a few days and it’ll all be over,” Cobb says, and it’s so damn sensible and reassuring coming from this big guy with the warm voice and wide smile. The best part is that there’s no lie there – if Paden just lets Cobb kill the people he needs to kill, life will almost certainly settle into a more peaceful rhythm. All you have to do is be able to live with it. All you have to be able to do is think of it and smile.
And that’s Cobb – he puts a good face on bad things, and he’s good at making people not look past the former to see the latter. And when you do? Well, one of the most potent, least subtle images in the whole movie is Cobb walking toward the camera with angry flames roiling behind him. He might not be the devil – he’s actually all too vividly human for that – but he’s in the ballpark. But one of the reasons that monologue is so damn juicy is that Paden and Cobb obviously were truly friends once, and Cobb obviously misses him. Cobb felt betrayed when Paden left him for the dog, but I think what Cobb really felt, and what really hurt him, was that Paden saw him for who he was, and left. It’s the loneliness of Cobb that hurts him the most. There’s an unmistakable longing to return to what Cobb still obviously thinks of as the good old days, so he gives Paden a job, tries to strong arm him into the towing the company line – he wants this to work, dammit. Even though he knows it won’t last. Paden is still, as Cobb later says, the guy who cares too much about the dog.
Before I throw it back to you, there’s one other visual moment that I wanted to point out, and it’s Jeff Fahey’s death scene. It comes toward the end. Fahey has been one of Cobb’s thugs throughout, a violent and intemperate man, and his end comes during the climactic gunfight. It’s an unremarkable death scene with one exception – Fahey’s eyes. He has these piercing light blue eyes, like Paul Newman’s, and after he’s shot, he falls to the ground, and somehow the light catches his eyes so they’re especially bright. And then his eyes snap shut and he’s dead, and it’s just an incredibly simple, powerful evocation of what death is – eyes shining bright, and then not. It has stuck with me ever since I saw it.
Anyway, here we are, several thousand words deep on this, and I feel like we’re still only scratching the surface! Care to dig a little more, you old grizzled prospector?
BEN: I might as well end things talking about what I believe is the primary theme of this movie, LUCK. This movie is all about luck and gambling, both in the literal and figurative sense, best exemplified by our main character, Paden. Paden’s a self-identified gambler and lover of saloons, but you get the feeling when the film starts that his luck has been pretty rotten to him lately, because for a gambler he’s pretty timid towards taking chances and a little risk-averse. He seems to be always playing the odds in his head and looks for the safest bets because he’s been burned one too many times in the past by taking wild bets.
You mentioned the dog story above, one of two pieces of backstory we get for Paden. In that story things have been going pretty well for Paden, being in Cobb’s gang, that is until one of his fellow gang members shoots a mangy stray. Paden didn’t even like the dog, but at that moment he takes pity on it and stays behind to take care of it, only to get caught by the law and thrown in jail. That was the end of his good times with Cobb, and you get the feeling that the lesson Paden learned is empathy has no place in gambling.
The second piece of backstory we get explains how Emmett came to find Paden alone in the desert with nothing but his long underwear to keep him company. After getting out of jail, gangless, Paden roams the West looking for his next adventure. He comes across a group of men that he decides to pal along with, because as he says himself, it’s better to treat people like a friend than an enemy, but that doesn’t turn out too well for him, as the outlaws he joins up with rob him blind and leave him to die. Again, you get the feeling that the lesson Paden learned from this is that empathy gets you nowhere and you should always play the odds when it comes to dealing with people.
What Paden doesn’t realize is that sometimes you can make your own luck by choosing the right side, regardless of how bad the odds might look over there. While Paden pals around with Emmett for a while in gratitude for saving his life, he immediately wants to bail as soon as Emmett makes his intentions of breaking his brother out of jail known. Going to the saloon and having a good time seems like the safer bet. But as I detailed above, his luck brings him face to face with one of the outlaws that stole his favorite hat, and luck again puts him in the same jail cell as Jake. To Paden, this is just another example of his awful luck, but to the audience, it appears to be the opposite. Paden’s “bad” luck puts him exactly where he’s supposed to be.
After escaping the jailbreak, our four protagonists come across a wagon train that was just robbed by the guides who were supposed to be keeping them safe. If luck is the main theme of this movie, seeing people for who they really are is a very close second. Ironically, earlier in town Paden and Emmett were mistaken for the two men that turned out to be these bandits that robbed the settlers of all their money. Three of our heroes want to go after the bandits, but Paden would rather stay behind with the attractive settler’s wife, played by Rosanna Arquette, after her husband makes a big stink about going with them because he’s afraid they’ll just take the money and never come back. Hitting on the wife is the safe bet, the outlaw bet, while taking on a camp full of bandits is a stupid bet, sure to get them all killed. But when Emmett tells Jake to stay behind and lead the caravan to Silverado, as Jake’s the only one who’s been there before, Paden reluctantly agrees to join the other men to take on the bandits.
This scene is another great set piece. Our heroes are outnumbered and outgunned; the bandits well fortified in a canyon with only one way in and out. Emmett uses his smarts to trick the bandits into thinking he’s being chased by a posse, when in reality he’s stealing back the lockbox full of the settler’s hard earned money. They make fooling the bandits look easy, and celebrate their well-earned victory, but the stern settler still believes that they’re going to steal the money for themselves. “Mister, you got a lot to learn about people,” the dumb homesettler says, right before he gets shot by one of the real bandits. The irony in his words is made instantly apparent. Even though these men have all run afoul of the law in the past, they all do the right thing by returning the money and helping the settlers make their way to Silverado.
The movie is all about this tug-o-war between luck and character and as much as Paden tries to walk away from this internal struggle, he keeps getting pulled back into doing the right thing. After a brief attempt at trying to seduce the now widowed settler, Paden almost immediately gives up when he realizes she’s serious about making the farm work. Upon arriving in Silverado Paden again tries to avoid making serious human connections by again heading straight to the nearest saloon, and again, as luck will have it, he runs right into what he was running away from. He and the barkeep, Stella, are kindred spirits and you can see an almost instant platonic friendship blossom. The two of them have such great chemistry together and it’s that chemistry that becomes the final tipping point for Paden’s journey, because naturally this saloon Paden fell in love with also happens to be owned by Cobb (who also just happens to sheriff, installed by the guy whose father just happened to have been shot by Emmett). Again luck has dealt Paden a bad hand, but it’s the relationships he’s developed thus far that ultimately end up turning his luck around.
Before I wrap things up, I just want to quickly mention that Jeff Goldblum’s traveling gambler character is obvious meant to be Paden’s mirror. Slick is a professional gambler doing what it feels like Paden wishes he was doing, traveling from town to town setting up his own games and caring about no one but himself. Slick plays the odds without taking his emotions into account. When the heroes ask for his help warning Jake about the coming storm, Slick stands aside and does nothing, leading to Jake’s capture. In the climax of the film, when it comes time to take sides, he sides with Cobb and his men, which is obviously the safe bet as Cobb is the sheriff and the saloon owner, whose interests aline with Slick’s. But because of his earlier betrayal, Mal’s sister steals the knife he keeps hidden in his boot, the same knife that ends up killing Slick. Just like Paden’s redemption comes from his empathy and willingness to do the right thing, Slick’s death comes from his lack of empathy and selfishness. Paden might have thought that his bad luck started with taking pity on a dying mutt, but in reality, that was actually the moment when his luck started to turn around.
Whoa there, cowpokes! Darn-tootin’, that was a long one! I hope it was worth the wait. Next time we watch Europa Report (2013) – dir. Sebastian Cordero, a hard sci-fi/found footage movie about the first astronauts to visit Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Does life exist outside of Earth? We find out when we see you next!