Justified My Love; or, Elmore Leonard Updates Western Hero

Silence is golden. Combine that with a serious western hero, and you have gunpowder to burn.

(Just one of the many promos pics of Olyphant aiming a gun. Note the un-western tie.)
One of the best modern takes on the classic laconic western hero is U.S. Marshal Rayland Givens, from the master of gab, Elmore Leonard. Leonard’s dialogue–from his westerns to his caper novels–bobs and weaves around the swift arc of his plots, telling most of the story and more than the story in the characters’ evasions, missteps, silences and/or verbal diarrhea, stutters, jitters, and elisions.

Note the white hat.

Givens, in Leonard’s novellas and recent novel, Raylan, and in FX’s series Justified with Timothy Olyphant, is the ur-westerner: gimlet-eyed, tight-lipped, smoldering-volcano-deep-inside, sex-on-a-stick. And he’s just so refreshingly modern.

This lawman’s territory is Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the last U.S. places imbued with a fabled wildness akin to lawless western towns. The villains are the crazed cowboys of oxycontin dealers, wife beaters, and bankrolled goons. The heroes still wear the badge. Guns still spark the showdowns. The epically awesome hero still says little and clears the riffraff out with a hard stare; if a look doesn’t work, then he’s still a dead shot with a gun the size of Texas. There’s still an intense bromance between the hero and the local criminal, and someday there’s still going to be an armageddon of a showdown. And basically, fundamentally, reassuringly, there’s still good guys vs. bad guys (and gals–this is a modern western after all, where the best villains tend to be female).

Bromance on Gangstergrass

But this hero is not a man without a mysterious, barely hinted-at past, as so many Man with No Name clones are; Raylan’s past kicked his ass to Harlan County, and nobody is letting him forget it.

He doesn’t ride a horse. He drives a gleaming sedan (I’m sure with air-conditioning and those seats that warm up your buns in the winter) and he has a college degree from someplace far from his hometown of Harlan County.

Fuggeddabout Shane-style hero worship. His fellow Harlan County denizens call him out on his western hero thing, one fellow marshal accusing him of thinking up bon mots under the cover of smoldering silence. His sultry one-time girlfriend tells him and his muscles, “I’m a big girl, Raylan. I’ve been taking care of myself long before you rode into town on your white horse.”

The theme song is no Frankie Laine swoony stuff.

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And we have a western hero who can’t abide old-boys’-club “humor” or anything that smells like bullying. In the name of the law, Raylan not only protects the weak and unfortunate by shooting villains (and sometimes talking them out of shooting him or others), but he can’t stand misogyny and racism, making him palatable for sensitive modern folk. (Although in a throwback nod to the heterosexual male viewer, apparently there seem to be plenty of super hot women in rural Kentucky.)

Exhibit A: The ex. cr: Frank Ockenfels III / FX

It’s hard to write a good western hero these days without falling into a color-within-lines stereotype. Or weighing the hero down with the task of redeeming all the misogynistic, racist, no-good-bums of western lore. But Elmore Leonard manages to toe that line: His hero  knows he’s acting the western lawman–cowboy hat, badge, shoot-from-the-hip instincts, and even goddamn cowboy boots–but he truly, honestly can’t help being one.
Justified season trailer:  Bottle of oxycontin. Camera focuses on label reading “Harlan.” Sound of gun being cocked. Ka-blammo! Bottle blown to bits. Timothy Olyphant lets his gun hand fall and leans back. Eases hat over face. Job done, bucko. Job done well. 


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