Geoff Pevere: The Therapeutic Western – 21st Century Justice

Something occurred to me when I was about fifty or so westerns in. Maybe I’m watching all these movies about righteous vengeance because they give me something I can’t get in real life: a sense of glorious justice.

In your typical revenge western – and the revenge motif is so central to this genre it probably wouldn’t exist without it – a wronged man sets out on a trek to make things right. He’s been wounded or robbed, or his family has been killed, or maybe he’s been left for dead by the friend he thought he could trust to share the spoils they’d just stolen. Whatever the motivation,  our hero is on the road to retribution.

And he gets it. He always gets it. In the more standard cowboy movies, it’s pretty simple: them who done him bad get done. Bad. But a great many westerns, most of the ones I’ve seen lately anyway, things are not so simple. With the process of extracting payback comes a reckoning, the realisation that a certain monstrousness has taken up residence in his soul. In devoting his entire being to getting back, he has become no better than the bad guys who fucked him over. Indeed, this might be the primary story told by some of the best westerns ever made: The Searchers, The Man From Laramie, Seven Men From Now, Red River, Unforgiven. All of these movies, and so many, many more, frame violent revenge as both necessary and poisonous. They’re ambivalent to the core, that is, and that’s pretty much why I love them. Westerns may look simple in form, narrative and iconography, but they’re actually one of the most complex popular forms of them all. They come with a sense of the past hardwired into them, and they face the problem of violence with a steely fixed stare. Action, as irresistible, essential and seductive as it is in these movies, has consequences, and the horizon headed toward in most of these movies is a hill rising toward uncertainty: where will John Wayne go at the end of The Searchers? Where has Will Munny disappeared to after Unforgiven? I mean, if the western is about heroic acts performed in the service of advancing civilisation, how come so many of them don’t stick around long enough to get civilized? Because they can’t. Because they’ve seen too much and know too much. Because they’ll never wash all that blood off their conscience.

I turn back to the western with revealing regularity. Always have, and probably always will. Part of it has to do with upbringing: I belong to the last generation who grew up immersed in cowboy pop culture, and my entire relationship to my father  was generously mediated by the shared experience of watching men on horses shoot each other and wonder what they’ve become. So yes, it’s partly nostalgia, but it’s also something else: the western is the forum in which I watch men engage in rituals which compel them to wonder what being a man is. They’re also about responsibility, accountability, aging with dignity, grace and honesty.

But they’re also hugely therapeutic. It can’t be coincidence, for instance, that I turned back to the western with such passionate obsession this past six months, as I was dealing with a process of coldly and deliberately enforced disengagement from a job that had left me entertaining all kinds of fantasies of retributive right-making. Not necessarily violent ones – although there might have been an instant or three when I did – but fantasies in which I’m made to compel the perpetrators to see their wrong, accept their folly, admit that I was right.

But this will never happen. The process I went through was one being faced by millions of people around the world, and one of the key reasons it’s such a frustrating and soul-corroding one is that it’s not personal. It’s purely business, the reduction of entire careers to numbers, and the weighing of such romantic abstractions of dignity against the hard, cold  balance sheet of fiscal performance.

And I know this and I’ve accepted it. It wasn’t about me personally, and to carry any lingering resentment around is to become the living embodiment of what someone once said about those who can’t let shit like this go: it’s like taking poison and expecting someone else to die.

This is the rescue to which the western has galloped: I get to see revenge being righteously and glorious taken, but I also get to see how it never really ends there. There’s always a toll to be taken, a premium paid that never really evens the score. If this is why so many westerns end on an ambiguous note as the wronged man rides toward the horizon, it also explains why so many begin just over that horizon: with a guy who can’t outride his own past, who’s always looking over his shoulder for another wronged man to come and get their revenge.

— 30 —

A Reminder:
The First Annual Don’t Believe a Word I Say Reader’s Poll
To everyone who may be having a problem with copying and pasting the Poll from Monday’s column. Try this:1. Highlight the Poll 2. Right click on the Poll and choose ‘copy’. 3. Open a new word doc or email. 4. Right click and choose ‘Paste’, 5. Fill out the form and 6. Email either as a word.doc attachment, or as a straight email. The Poll is also available to copy and paste on my Facebook page Let me know if that works. If that doesn’t work, email me at, and I’ll mail the Poll directly to you to fill out. That might be the easiest way. Sorry for the inconvenience. We really are interested in hearing what you have to say. Also, your answers can include any music, movies, TV, etc, from any year, not just 2011.
Thank you,

We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

2 Responses to “Geoff Pevere: The Therapeutic Western – 21st Century Justice”

  1. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

  2. Mister Green Says:

    I quite enjoy what is written on this site. I hope the word’s getting out there; it certainly should be.

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