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The Ox-Bow Incident

I'm very picky when it comes to Westerns. While I heavily enjoy the revisionist or romantic portrayals of gunslingers in film, older Westerns tend to have that "Hollywood western" feel to them that I absolutely detest. Those westerns would be the ones where the terms 'gunslinger' and 'cowboy' are interchangeable, where cowboys sing silly ballads around campfires, and where morality is as simple as black and white. One could accuse films like Sergio Leone's westerns of not being entirely accurate either, but I find that spaghetti westerns at least try for some form of accuracy. Though The Ox-Bow Incident starts out like a Hollywood western, things take a very interesting turn after the twenty-minute mark.

The film begins with two cowboys, Croft and Carter, coming into the town of Bridger's Wells. After entering the local saloon, they discover a paranoid and subdued atmosphere in the town after several incidents of cattle-rustling. At first, the townsfolk are hesitant of the newcomers as they've never seen the duo around town before. Before things can get too tense, a town crier announces that Larry Kinkaid, a local rancher, has been murdered. A lynching mob is soon formed, law is abandoned, and the group sets out to find and hang any of those involved with Kinkaid's death.

The first twenty minutes of the film are, frankly, quite awful to sit through. It's as if the film wants us to think this'll be a cheesy Hollywood western, and therefore lets us walk onto the carpet before pulling it from under our feet. It's a nice trick, but tricks don't make for good cinema. The opening's filled with awful dialogue, poor acting, and cringe-worthy sets - going this far to prove a point is simply ridiculous.

Once you hit the twenty-minute mark though, things change drastically. The script gets drastically better, the Hollywood facade comes off, and the film becomes much, much darker. Don't expect this to be your typical Western either because, aside from the setting and characters, this film is more of a drama with the American West as a backdrop. Questions on justice, morality, and corruption are raised, and none of the answers are particularly easy. Though modern audiences may have become accustomed to films like these, one can only imagine what an older audience thought of The Ox-Bow Incident - a film that's surprisingly liberal for a film made in 1940's America.

The characters are all interesting and serve their purpose, but the film is far more concerned with theme rather than character. This isn't a bad thing at all, as there have been plenty of great films that focus on the process rather than the individual parts. The characters may be standard fare, but they're still likable, touching, and well-written people.

The visuals, like the rest of the film, start out blandly then turn into something great after the twenty-minute mark. The camera starts out virtually static, never budging save for when somebody walks into the room or something to that effect. After the awful opening, however, the film picks up with a nice, dark look and the camerawork feels far more fluid.

If you can look past the awful opening, you'll find that The Ox-Bow Incident's a really interesting movie. It raises significant questions, the characters are likable, and the tension that arises after the supposed killers are found makes for an interesting morality play. It may be flawed, but the film's touching nature slightly makes up for the cheesy opening.





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