Each Monday, I share reviews of Westerns I’m studying to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.


Week Twenty Eight: The Nightingale & Cat Ballou


The Nightingale

Though not a typical Western, like Sweet Country (my favorite film last year) The Nightingale is a violent, thematic, and ultimately profound journey into the genre. The Australians are just so good with Westerns, often able to bring to them a depth that our American directors are not. Jennifer Kent, whose first film I did not see, stunned me with this one.

It is not easy to watch and my initial reaction to the extreme events of the first thirty minutes was doubt but then I thought of many of the facts I’m recounting in my own Natchez Trace project and realized that horrible things like this (and worse) are accurate, authentic not only to this setting but to all of human history. The film gains incredible strength when Clare, our female protagonist, meets Billy, a performance that belongs in the list of wonderful acting from Aboriginal actors. Though the cast is strong, it’s Baykali Ganambarr in this role who steals the picture. What he does in the final moments of this picture are so heartbreaking, I start to tear up just thinking about them.

Director Jennifer Kent does a wonderful job with pacing. The film is long but in all the right ways. It doesn’t do what we think it will, especially with in all the opportunities it has to turn into a routine revenge thriller. She handles the material with courage and confidence. I will now go back to her first film but, though it was more of a commercial success, I doubt it is as breathtaking as her second feature. That this film isn’t getting more attention is little surprise to me; it is exactly the kind of challenging work that confounds critics and that audiences have been sadly trained to stay away from.

But I feel this may be the best film I’ve seen in 2019. It’s a hard decision between Kent’s film and Dragged Across Concrete: both brutal, both brilliant.

Seen on Hulu.


Cat Ballou


It must be about twenty years, maybe even more, since I’ve seen this film. It’s a fun Western romp. Lee Marvin is of course the most obvious amusing element of the piece but I was more attentive to other things I both liked and disliked.


My favorite part is the Greek chorus-like device with the two singers, Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye. They’re recurring presence really moves the film and I love the simple but clever way the filmmaker re-introduce them into scenes. It’s amazing to think that Cole was dying during this when he exudes such life on screen, more proof that he was an incredible performer.


In relation to my own work, I was delighted to see the use of the dime novel at the beginning and the Disney-like “storybook” credits which we plan to do for A Guide to Gunfighters of the Wild West. This is a perfect model to take inspiration from.


What didn’t work for me most was the romance between Fonda and Callan. It just comes out of nowhere, catapulted from a silly crush to “I love you” territory. The best line of the movie might be when Marvin exclaims his sudden realization that Cat Ballou loves Clay instead of him, as he’s been thinking the whole time. He wasn’t wrong to be confused because the filmmakers just didn’t do a good job of laying those romantic bread crumbs throughout the film. There’s also a major missed opportunity in not having her fall in love with Jackson, the Native American character. He’s the most grounded character and this could have been a nice love twist if handled correctly, leaving Callan and Hickman to remain single buffoons.


Again, Marvin is clearly the best part but thinking of this role in comparison to his others proves one more cynical point: the Academy nearly always gives an actor the Oscar for his or her lesser work.


Seen on DVD.


-Travis Mills