Movie review by Greg Carlson
In Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” flinty amnesiac Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) joins the list of tight-lipped movie toughs eager to piece together out-of-focus memories. From Jason Bourne to the anterograde Lenny in “Memento,” the inability to recount one’s past operates like a cinematic magic bullet/tabula rasa that simultaneously liberates the protagonist from layers of weighty mental baggage and serves the plot with a built-in catalyst driving the action toward a goal of self-(re)discovery. Additionally, the gimmick invites the viewer to identify with the hero, experiencing his – or very rarely her – adventures with a parallel sensation of novelty. As mash-ups go, “Cowboys & Aliens” owes a great deal more to the six-shooter than the ray gun, an imbalance that will find some favor with open-minded fans of America’s most durable movie genre.
Lonergan, who wakes up in the brush with a strange metallic gauntlet attached to his arm and a nasty laceration under his rib cage, makes his way to Absolution – the town and the theological state of forgiveness and reconciliation – where he runs afoul of Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano, who has perfected the impudent whelp), the liquored-up son of crusty cattleman Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Before Percy and the wanted Lonergan can be extradited to the custody of a federal judge by Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), Col. Dolarhyde and an alien aircraft arrive simultaneously, forcing an uneasy alliance between the outlaw and the rancher when all kinds of hell breaks loose.
The otherworldly invaders make off with several townsfolk, roping them like spooked cows by way of cables attached to the underside of their UFOs. As a hastily organized posse (is there any other kind?) gives chase, Favreau attempts to channel John Ford, outlining several familial relationship conflicts that focus primarily on Dolarhyde’s failures as a father and his inability to acknowledge the paternal bond he shares with surrogate son Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), a tracker who lives in Percy’s ugly shadow. Additionally, the mysterious and almost impossibly beautiful Ella (Olivia Wilde) insists on sticking close to a wary Lonergan.
Situated within the framework of the contemporary western, “Cowboys & Aliens” leans heavily on a foundation of outmoded and regressive cinematic stereotypes in the treatment and coding of Native Americans. The introduction of members of the Chiricahua Apache, led by Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo) conjures the musty tradition of the mystically inclined, spiritually in-tune, nature-connected other. Defined principally by stony nobility, fierce fighting skills, and a tendency to full-throated shrieks and whoops, the Apache reluctantly join forces with Dolarhyde because their people have also been kidnapped by the creatures.
Favreau is good with actors, and had he been confident enough to include even more John Ford-inspired explorations of human nature, culture clash, and the tensions between the wild/chaotic and the settled/ordered, “Cowboys & Aliens” might have fulfilled its promised as something unique on the summer release schedule. Ford’s films consistently and patiently filtered the action through quieter scenes depicting rites of passage, ceremony, and ritual, but the action-oriented demands of the contemporary, big-budget movie appear to deny nuance in favor of thrilling spectacle.