Back in early 70s there was a pair of Italian-made comedy westerns, directed by Enzo Barboni (under the pseudonym E.B. Clucher) and starring his frequent collaborators Terence Hill and Bud Spence, They Call Me Trinity and Trinity is Still My Name.
I caught these off-beat parodies of a lazy, unlikely western hero on afternoon television when I was a kid in the 1970s. They served as my weird introduction to the spaghetti western, even before I discovered the Clint Eastwood classics. They were badly dubbed and dryly acted, but were redeemed by hilarious scenes like the face-slapping quick draw. I enjoyed these G-rated western weirdies so much as a kid, I always make sure to give comic westerns the benefit of the doubt.
There have been hits and misses. Blazing Saddles is still pure comedy gold, while A Million Ways to Die in the West got old before the movie even finished. Still, there's something about the over-the-top manliness of the Old West hero and villain mixed with unlikely one-liners, majestic scenic skies mixed with sight gags, and action mixed with antics that allows this mashup of genres to continue to be intriguing.
This fall brings us a pair of westerns with darkly comic edges to look forward to, with the first premiering this weekend.
The Sisters Brothers
Opening Sep. 21, this comedy by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard features an unlikely teamup of Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as a pair of brother assassins, ironically named Sisters, who are tracking down an intellectual gold prospector (Riz Ahmed). It's the casting that makes this one worth the watch, as Phoenix (who's already gearing up for his Joker origin) dives into every role head on, and as Reilly has an acting range for both comedy and drama. Jake Gyllenhaal also stars.
At the first sound of the familiar riff from the music box in this trailer, you know this one is going to take you down an entirely new path.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Coming to both Netflix and select theaters Nov. 16, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen present an anthology western telling six different stories, each involving the character Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). The impressive cast list go on forever — Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, and Tom Waits to list a few — but I would see this one for the Coen Brothers' directing alone. Not only do The Coens have a knack for completely capturing a genre, region, and era with spot-on satire, but they might top the list for making some of the most quotable and memorable characters in modern movie-making.
They've shown they can master comedy (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) drama (No Country for Old Men, Miller's Crossing) and even westerns with their True Grit remake, so I'm expecting this one to be another thoroughly entertaining venture.
Here's hoping before the winter comes that we'll be able to ride off into the sunset a couple of times with a few good laughs — dead or alive.
Header image © Annapurna Pictures.