A look at the budding "quiet western" subgenre

So many of our waking hours are whiled away silently, even incredible moments. At some point, in the middle of the most eventful moment of your life, you'll have to use the facilities and there probably won't be a soundtrack. Unless you've installed surround sound in the bathroom too, pervert.

A place and time even less likely to feature non-diegetic sound is the frontier. You know, pioneer hardtack, woolen coats, covered wagons and the like. What a quiet time to be alive. A banjo'd be nice 'round the campfire, leave the musket in your quarters.

2022's Power of the Dog is a wonderful new(ish) addition to the pioneer canon. Too exciting to be mumblecore, too narrative to be experimental, and too evenly lit to be noir. The score is a kind compliment to the film, never dipping into action movie territory, while still exciting and immersing the audience. Director Jane Campion made a western in the traditional sense, but with subdued, cerebral action.

Source: The Power of the Dog 2022. Dir. Jane Campion Cinematographer Ari Wegner

2019's First Cow is an earlier entry, a little strange, lonely, tense, a heist but not necessarily a thriller. The ending is known from the beginning but is still surprising and painful. Beautifully shot, the camera lingers romantically but not excessively.

The current driving figure of these films is First Cow's director, Kelly Reichardt, associated with the broader category of slow cinema. Reichardt has made a career of long shots and unhurried action, with 2010's Meek's Cutoff heading her entries into the western subcategory of the slow cinema genre.

Slow westerns, not to be confused with the shootout-heavy, lukewarm Slow West, ruminate on the mundanity of tasks us modern folk find enthralling. Basket weaving! Fresh bread from a stone pit! I'm just a city yokel myself, I don't know a biscuit from hardtack.

The relative peace highlights tension without being overbearing. Something bad is going to happen, this much is clear, but the shot will cut before it does, and implies the character's outcome instead. Or the violence is shot from afar with minimal interruption or score. This is what distinguishes slow westerns from classic westerns. In the case of early genre precursor, Dead Man, gunshots punctuate the quiet while maintaining a thoughtful, slightly removed mood throughout.

I'm looking forward to more films that ruminate unobtrusively on the high plains.