By any standard, Silverado is a terrific Western. No apologies, caveats, or or provisos are necessary. Silverado is rip-roaring Western fun, not the West the way it used to be, but a thoroughly plausible and adventurous West, a West suitable for modern tastes. Lawrence Kasdan has never made a better film than Silverado, and it is more fun than Westerns have been since Sergio Leone stopped making them. Kasdan has succeeded where Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider failed: he has found a modern cinematic idiom for the Western. There literally has never been a Western quite like Silverado.
Kasdan's success is based on a very smart appraisal of which trappings of Westerns past to keep and which to replace, and, equally importantly, what to replace them with. The plot, once it settles down, is very similar to that of Pale Rider and several hundred other Westerns. A rich bad guy is using crooked lawmen to oppress poorer folk, and a band of heros (frequently compressed to one man, as in Pale Rider and Shane, but here at the manageable size of four) must rescue them and defeat the villains. Kasdan's new story twist has been to trap up this standard plot with a little bit of the rollercoaster effect from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first hour or so is spent on exciting, fundamentally unrelated episodes which serve to get the heros together, exhibit their characters, and set things up for the real plot. Nothing could be further from the kind of tight dramatic structure that characterized the Westerns of John Ford. Sergio Leone used to do the same type of things, but for very different purposes. Leone was interested in mythology, which Kasdan doesn't care about one bit. Silverado's characters aren't meant to be archetypes and the story isn't meant to be prototypical. Kasdan's second important innovation is to develop the characters as real people with real problems, to as great a degree as his swift pacing allows.
And Lawrence Kasdan, in conjunction with Mark Kasdan, his brother, has done an excellent job with the characters. Kevin Kline plays an ex-gunfighter with a disturbing tendency to care about unpredictable things, even when his feelings prove inconvenient. Scott Glenn is a simpler sort, who just wants to visit his relatives in the town of Silverado on his way to California. Glenn never looks for a fight, but won't back down when pushed too far. Kevin Costner, playing his brother, has the weakest lead, a fairly stereotypical young hotshot. The last of the four heros is Danny Glover, who, disillusioned with the big city of Chicago, wants only to return home in peace to his family's farm, near Silverado. Kasdan gives each of these men realistic characteristics and backgrounds, not to mention good dialog. Each hero has his own style of operating, which Kasdan cleverly employs throughout the picture. Kline, Glenn, and Glover are very good, especially Kline. Costner has always rubbed me the wrong way, as an actor, and his cocky part here doesn't help, but he's good enough.
The Kasdan brothers haven't skimped on the supporting cast, either, perhaps going a bit too far the other way. Brian Dennehy gets to do the contrast of the summer, with his benevolent, understanding alien in Cocoon and his chief villain here in Silverado. Dennehy isn't just a cardboard villain, though. He has some commendable traits to go with his bad ones. Linda Hunt is superb as a woman whose life is the bar she runs in Silverado. She has three or four excellent scenes with Kline. Jeff Goldblum has a medium sized part as a gambler. Rossana Arquette is the victim of cutting. Her role as a farmer's widow is severely underdeveloped due to the necessity to get Silverado's running time down under two-and-a-half hours. The biggest surprise of Silverado is probably John Cleese, unexpectedly playing a basically serious role as a sheriff more interested in peace than justice. It is a measure of Cleese's acting ability that, despite expectations, he is totally believable in the part and in complete control, to such an extent that he can get a laugh or two without causing his scenes to collapse in Pythonesque memories. Cleese would be a much more interesting choice for the next James Bond than I would have thought.
Kasdan puts the cast through the script's energetic paces with great gusto. There can be no doubt that the director, along with everyone else, is enjoying himself greatly. In undisciplined hands, this kind of enjoyment can reduce a film to an in-joke, but Kasdan puts all the fun on the screen for the audience to see. His kinetic style is quite unlike the more lugubrious pacing of Body Heat or the leisurely chat of The Big Chill. Silverado moves. Once in a while the constant portentous shots and camera angles unintentionally mislead me into expecting something which didn't come, but basically Kasdan's speed is under control. Kasdan also shows good sense on when to use the traditional types of shots and when to break out with something new, something not generally done in a Western. The bonding of the old conventions with new styles is definitely Kasdan's greatest achievement on Silverado.
Also worth mentioning is Kasdan's superb use of striking New Mexico locations. The mountains, plains, and deserts fill up the wide screen. Kasdan has stated that he wanted to make a film about when the West was still opening up, rather than one about its death, the subject of so many Westerns of the past decade. He uses the wide screen and beautiful scenery to give a feel of a land full of potential, which had always been one of the lures of the Western. The possibilities for evil exist, but they can be defeated by good men and women who won't allow their new land to be spoiled. This is the sort of message audiences want to hear nowadays, not gloomy predictions of imminent decay. Kasdan also cleverly uses men with a place, rather than men of mystery. Each of the heros has a past or future in Silverado. They're not just mysterious strangers who ride in, clean up the town for reasons of their own, and ride out never to be seen again. Heros like Clint Eastwood's Preacher in Pale Rider don't appeal to audiences as much as they used to. The mysterious figure is practically an elemental force, and certainly not entirely natural. He is wish fulfillment, while the heros of Silverado are real people, not as puissant, perhaps, but more believable, and thus, more dependable.
Technically, Silverado looks the way a $23 million film should look. Kasdan's West is cleaner than we're used to seeing. No muddy streets and broken down saloons for him. On the other hand, it isn't the near- pristine West of the 1940s either. You'd have to look long and hard to see an outhouse in a Western of that era. The photography by John Bailey, particularly the scenic shots, is also fine, with good use made throughout of the wide screen. Silverado will definitely suffer on a television screen, and should be seen in 70mm for full effect. Carol Littleton has done a very good job editing the film, in the tradition of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but a bit less frantically. Bruce Broughton provides a suitably heroic score.
Silverado is, if not "the ride of your life" as advertised, a damn good amble across the prairies. Even if you think you don't like Westerns, I'd advise trying Silverado. It's a first rate adventure. Columbia should have a big hit with it.
But what of the meta-question? Will Silverado revive the Western as a genre? I think not. Silverado is the production of lots of talent and hard work. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it can be copied only at peril. Simple trash like Homberg: Gobs o' Blood II can, and will, be copied, with profit, by almost any mini-talent. Silverado, for all its excellence, doesn't chart a clear way in which moderately talented people with moderate budgets can make a Western which is likely to show a profit.
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