Steampunk Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
Earlier this month I wrote a about using humor as a tool for exploring the terrible conditions that most people faced during the 19th and early 20th centuries. By taking something that isn’t inherently funny and taking it to a ridiculous extreme can be a way to both grapple with the issue and get a chuckle from your audience. The recent spoof on the classic Western, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is a great example of this. It has everything you’d want in a film about the old West like gun fights, an unambiguously evil bad guy, bar fights and great clothes, but with a central theme that living in that time and place was totally awful. Death truly lies around every corner, yet it is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time.
In a 2014 interview with co-star Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), writer and star of the film, Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) had this to say:
“The story is a contemporary take on a what is essentially a classic Western. It’s sort of sets out to look at a world that we have romanticized in our culture for many many decades, takes a lot of elements that have become familiar to us, some of which are Hollywood creations and some of which are accurate… In a nutshell it takes a world that we know well through Hollywood and through history, and presents it through a very modern lens.”
For this reason, I feel like this film belongs on a list of Steampunk films. Sure, it doesn’t have weird technology or supernatural elements, but it takes a time and place in history that is contemporary with the Victorian era and punks it. There is even a special name of Steampunk with a Western twist, “Cowpunk”, but I tend to keep everything messing with the steam era all under the same umbrella term of Steampunk.
In the movie, MacFarlane and Theron’s characters are the only people in their little dirty, dangerous corner of the world who “get it”, and they bond over their mutual hatred. Liam Neeson is the local bad guy, and is out for blood when he finds out his wife, Theron, is carousing with another man. There are also several more familiar faces who round out this amazing cast. Neil Patrick Harris makes an appearance as the dandified shopkeeper and even treats the audience to a musical interlude all about the awesome power of mustaches. Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who is saving herself until marriage and Giovani Ribisi is her patient fiance.
The comedic elements are equal part verbal and visual. There is both witty banter and slapstick ridiculousness which I thoroughly enjoyed, though there was one diarrhea joke that went on too long for my tastes. Other than that, I thought it was extremely well-written and the acting and comedic timing were perfect. This is definitely an adult movie with a lot of f-bombs, so viewer beware if you don’t like swearing.