6 Sep. 2016
Thinking and Writing
Into the Sunset: How a Poorly-Rated Heist/Thriller That Was Actually a Western Started an Important Conversation on Narrative Conventions and Conclusions
A couple of weeks ago I was on the brink of my first official semester as a media arts major at BYU, it was movie night, and I wasn’t exactly enthused. (A film student who doesn’t want to watch a film?! Say it isn’t so!) You have to understand. It was movie night with my Grandpa. When it comes to cinema, Grandpa goes through phases in which he picks one genre and one genre only, and that’s the type of film you will be watching with him until further notice. He really commits. It’s also impossible to say no to a sweet old man who is genuinely excited to share his current obsession with the rest of the family. His last phase consisted solely of Hallmark Channel chick flicks. If I see another film where Leading Chick’s hair is perfect until it’s suddenly not in order to illustrate just how unflinchingly adoring her man candy is (he still cares about her even with a few curls out of place; oh, how sweet!), I might actually rip my hair out, but I digress. Thankfully, the Hallmark flick phase died out a while ago. Its replacement: generic heist/thrillers. So this is how I ended up watching Firewall – starring Harrison Ford, made in 2006, now on Netflix – late at night when I should have been organizing my half-unpacked disaster of an apartment. Now, I love America’s favorite space cowboy as much as anyone, so things could have been worse.
Firewall follows Jack Stanfield, head of network security at a bank whose family is held hostage, forcing Jack to subvert his own software in order to rob the bank. In the end, Stanfield winds up in the middle of nowhere face-to-face with the robber-gang’s leader Bill Cox, whom he defeats through brute force before heading off toward the horizon with his family. My Mom wasn’t pleased with the ending. She thought it was cheesy. Perusing multiple reviews by other audience members, the most frequent phrases I noticed were “cliché” or “you’ve seen it before.” One fellow Netflix consumer also had some beef with the ending. In their own words, “So Ford kills the bad guy and… all is well in the banking world? The movie focused on the heist and never closed the loop[.] Not even a ‘Thanks Harrison for your service, all your questionable acts are now forgiven.’” But all I could think of after the final fade-to-black was, “Ha! I just watched a Western! Of course it ended like that!”
But how can one consider a film set in modern-day Seattle involving computer technology a Western? Since I don’t claim to be a genre-expert, I consulted Edward Buscombe’s analysis of the Western in the Oxford History of World Cinema. According to Buscombe, common elements of a Western include a “free-spirited” cowboy, robbery at gunpoint, “a chase on horseback, and a final shootout.” Most importantly, the frontier setting serves as a “dividing line” between “law and order…[and] the values of a settled society” and lawlessness. Ford’s character may not look the part of the cowboy, but he is quickly established as a bit of a loner, an independent, when a disagreement arises between himself and other important members of the banking community during a meeting. As the story progresses, his relationships with co-workers grow rockier, forcing Stanfield to face his enemy alone. Robbery at gunpoint? Check, with the twist being that the hero himself is forced to do the robbing. The horses in the final pursuit of the bad guy are replaced by their modern equivalent, the car. And like clockwork, all members of Cox’s gang are eliminated until it comes down to Stanfield versus his newfound nemesis. Finally, the physical location of the wild west is exchanged for a new frontier: the firewall. It is this uneasily conquered technological barrier that literally divides an access to money, the catalyst of a modern capitalist civilization, from lawless thieves such as Cox. To top it all off, we even get a “ride-off-into-the-sunset” ending when Stanfield rejoins his family (nervously waiting from a safe distance for him to finish Cox off) and walks with them toward the horizon glimmering in the distance as the cops pull up. Fade out.
It was this “cheesy” ending that really gave my brain something to chew. The fact that it was so clearly a “Western” finale made me wonder whether all such endings are cheesy, even in the classic Westerns themselves. It also got me reflecting on the difference between audience expectations in the present day and say, the 1950’s, when the Western was in its prime (Buscombe). Clearly, considering the reactions of both my Mom and many others, “ride-off-into-the-sunset” conclusions are often unsatisfying to the modern audience– we like our endings tied up neatly. I’ll admit, even High Noon’s similarly abrupt conclusion jolted me a little, and that Western is a critically acclaimed classic. We’re also terrible at saying goodbye: just think of all the epilogues and sequels and prequels rampant in today’s literature and film! Since I mentioned chick flicks earlier, let’s take a look at one of that genre’s most popular staples: Mean Girls, which incidentally came out only two years prior to Firewall. The “happy-ending” music starts more than five whole minutes before the credits roll, and Cady’s redemption is nearly complete at that point. But she still gets to give a speech, make up with her arch-nemesis, find forgiveness from her friends, kiss her “man candy” and dance the night away. Then we witness what eventually happens to the mean girls, and we even get a freeze-frame on the final shot in case you still aren’t ready to bid farewell to Lindsay Lohan’s face. Contrast that with Firewall, where Jack Stanfield is hacking Cox with a pick-axe and less than 120 seconds later the screen is black. Wait, what?
It’s no wonder people felt like they’d seen Firewall before; it mimicked the “Western” narrative from start to finish. And it’s no wonder that a typical Western ending may feel a little abrupt to today’s audience given our often-gratified desire to know in scrupulous amounts of detail precisely what happens post-climax and even post-conclusion. The Western consequently provides an interesting lens through which one might analyze the conventions of narrative and the elusive secret to a satisfying ending. Thus, the study of such a historic genre, its influence on and differences from present-day cinema are worth considering, especially when a film like Firewall brings them all so close together.
Buscombe, Edward. “The Western” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 286-294. Print.
Netflix review of Firewall, found under the “Details” section.