Decision at Sundown (Budd Boetticher, 1957)

I had a big, steaming pile of pre-ordered hate for this in anticipation of all the classical western clichés I’ve come to expect.  I hated how the lone hero rode into town for the 837042184732nd time (although this time around to murder his adversary on that adversary’s wedding day – a surprisingly morbid twist on the formula), I hated how the few female characters were personality-less bartering chips for the 870431497325th time, I hated how Bart insisting on paying for his own whiskey and Sheriff Swede insisting that Bart keep his money led to the same 10 minute dick size contest I’ve seen in so many classical westerns, I hated how the hero’s motivation was, what else, revenge.  I hated Bart, the prototypical anti-hero out for revenge.  But then I realized, where so many classical westerns have simply left me apathetic and I forget about them the morning after, Bart and Decision at Sundown inspired a real negative reaction from me, which alone had to be worth something.  And then when I thought harder, and Bart stubbornly stuck to his blind lust for revenge when the world was trying to convince him it wasn’t worth it for so many reasons, I realized that I didn’t hate Bart himself; I hated his desire for revenge, as if even he didn’t fully buy his incapacitating need to avenge his dead wife, but rather needed to fulfill that silly archetype of getting revenge, to prove his manhood to himself, and to his dead wife who we soon find out had every reason to disregard and be apathetic to that manhood.  Kimbrough, the tacit dictator of the little town of Sundown, and Sheriff Swede, the Darth Vader to Kimbrough’s Emperor, may be monstrous, but so too is Bart: his mindlessly destructive need for violent revenge, his embracing of every masculine stereotype that so infuriated me the cynical viewer, his (willful?) blindness to the true nature of she who is is to be avenge, his disregard for how his personal quest for an ultimately empty murder affects his friends and allies in Sundown, to the point where his noble intentions aren’t noble at all; they’re as greedy and egotistical as Kimbrough’s.  That hero and villain are essentially the same shade of gray from the outset, the only difference being that one hides behind the veneer of dignity and worthiness while the other doesn’t care what anyone thinks and is beyond (and not worth) saving, show that this here’s more than the typical cliché-ridden Western, where that villain not worth saving might just have to be for the hero to save himself.  And all that is played out in an economically tense standoff with Bart and his buddy holed up in the livery stable while the townspeople become increasingly disillusioned with what’s become of their town under Kimbrough.  The sermonizing of those townspeople at the bar while Bart is holed up across the street could’ve been lame, but wasn’t.  Hell, these people’s coming together and collective waking-up rivaled, dare I say, the similar townspeople’s collective awakening towards a common goal at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Both they, and their representative Bart, wake up to the fact that they don’t have put up with this insecure asshole Kimbrough, that a wrong doesn’t have to be righted with a bullet, that they’re in a movie that questions all those masculinity-driven Western stereotypes by putting them on display and leaving viewers like me to be disgusted with them and reflect why they’re so disgust-worthy.  Great movie!


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