Cowboys & Aliens begins and ends with dead girls. Actually, it begins and ends with Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) thinking about dead girls. The situation is typical: men in movies are typically defined by loss, which in turn triggers revenge, remorse, and rebellion. That this loss is conventionally embodied by women is also not news.
Just so, as Jake wakes at the start of Cowboys & Aliens, he’s feeling loss. First, he’s unsure how he’s arrived where he is, namely, in the New Mexican desert without a horse and with a bloody wound in his side. Gasping for air, he lurches into frame, a terrific introduction to a man without a memory, his face sunburned and angular and not quite panicked. As the wind blows and the dusty slowly shifts, he sees he’s wearing an odd dark-metal-and-lights bracelet. As he sets to work on removing it—slamming a rock, hard, against his arm—he’s presented with an opportunity: three rough-hewn men ride up on him. They surmise he’s a wanted man and imagine they’ll trade him in for a bounty. Jake has other ideas: in a moment, he takes out all three, outfits himself with their weapons and boots, and picks out the best horse for a long journey. He’s also adopted by their dog, who scampers along with him loyally for the rest of the movie.
The fact that that movie is called Cowboys & Aliens indicates more than a little bit where Jake and his new friend are headed. You won’t be surprised to learn that these others from another planet stand in here for other others, the most common type in U.S. Westerns being Indians. That’s not to leave out still other others, like fops and villains and women, all those who aren’t cowboys or their equivalents.
Jake is the film’s primary cowboy, his awesome fighting skills and harsh exterior barely hiding his moral center. This much is clear as soon as he arrives—with dog—in the town of Absolution and runs afoul of Percy (Paul Dano), the irresponsible, hard-drinking son of a wealthy cattleman and Civil War veteran, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Even as Percy threatens Jake with daddy’s retribution, the two end up handcuffed together by Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine), who means to send these troublemakers to the big city, where they’ll face federal authorities.
Before that can happen, though, the aliens attack. As a small squadron of ships blast buildings to bits and carry off humans with what look like long lassoes, Jake finds himself both in his element and utterly baffled. He’s able to walk amid the explosions without fear, and also to fight back by using the bracelet that’s still attached to his arm (turns out that it’s a remarkably effective weapon, aiming and projecting and blamming blue laser-lights). He impresses the townsfolk left behind and wondering where “our people” went: with Percy kidnapped, Dolarhyde is transformed from an abusive bully into a concerned father (sort of), just as 13-year-old Emmett (Noah Ringer) resolves to get back his grandfather, the sheriff, and the mild-mannered saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell), missing his beautiful wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera), fixates on saving her, no matter the violence that may demand.
The posse, typically formed in a moment’s outrage and panic, includes as well two obvious others—tolerated more than embraced. First, Dolarhyde’s not-quite-adopted son Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), who serves as scout and translator, helpful when the group expands to include a band of Chiricahua Apache Indians, whose chief, Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo), reports that they have also lost loved ones to the aliens. And second, Ella (Olivia Wilde) insists she has a stake in this mess, even if she’s not quite willing to say what that is. Instead, she keeps looking closely at Jake, wondering aloud, “You don’t remember anything, do you?” (When she presses him to say what he does know, Jake is aptly laconic: “English.”)
Though Ella looks flimsy and runway-modelish, she keeps a pistol on her hip and rides astride, her white dress hitched up to show her worn black boots. One bearded bully complains about bringing along a woman, but—no surprise—she’s tougher than most of the guys. It’s also predictable that those guys all have roles to play in relation to each other, as father-types and possible sons come together and apart. The wise and worldly preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) teaches Doc to shoot a gun, Nat’s abject devotion to Dolarhyde is framed by the older man’s brutal racism, as well as Dolarhyde’s effort to father young Emmett: he gives him a knife he’s been carrying since the war, instructing the boy to use it in order to “be a man.”
Of course, Emmett’s tagging along with the adults leads him precisely to that sort of end. His role models are hostile, perpetually angry, a little like the landscape they traverse, though without the poetic punctuations. If the kid’s lesson is foregone, the men’s transformations—from selfish, ignorant individuals into something like a community—are inevitably helped along by their union against a common enemy. Common and conventional: the aliens are ugly and mean, conducting grisly experiments on their human specimens, a violence that looks much worse than the viciousness managed by Dolarhyde or Percy or the gnarly minor gang member Hunt (the great Walton Goggins).
And so Cowboys & Aliens makes a regular case: horrible monsters inspire better human behavior, mostly white-manly. Yes, this regular case relies as well on not-so-coherent, but certainly convenient, actions by others. It’s not exactly history. But it is repetitive.