Movie Review – True West

True West (1984)
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Allan A. Goldstein

Sam Shepard was a playwright that seemed to know what to say about the time he was living in perfectly. He was particularly interested in the transformation of the American West from a mythic landscape used to feed the imaginations of Americans to its incorporation as just another part of the urban & suburban sprawl that took over the country. In his screenplay for Paris, Texas, his protagonist emerges from the desert only to disappear back into it at the story’s conclusion, in a parallel to John Ford’s The Searchers. People who cannot change their perspectives and, at minimum, understand the times they live in will be left on the sidelines, drifting away until forgotten. 

True West opens with brothers Austin (Gary Sinise) and Lee (John Malkovich) mid-conversation one hot summer night in Los Angeles. Austin is working on a screenplay, eager to get a draft hashed out to show to his producer friend, Saul. The writer is holed up in his mom’s house while she’s on vacation in Alaska. Austin hoped that getting away from his wife & kids for a week would give him the space he needed to work. However, Lee seems interested in keeping his little brother from accomplishing anything. The older man is a drifter & a thief, seemingly taking after the men’s estranged father. Lee is hyper-conscious of the class divide between him and Austin, and any small remark from the younger is interpreted as a slight by the elder. A strange thing happens when Lee barges in on Austin’s meeting with Saul and starts pitching his idea for a movie. Suddenly, Saul is taking Austin with getting Lee’s idea on paper and sidelining the original film idea. Things become more surreal as these brothers turn savage toward each other.

From the opening scene of True West, you can feel tension. Lee is such a simultaneously intimidating & ridiculous character that you don’t quite know what to do with him. That results in unease and an inability to understand where this is going. Will it stay as a tense conversation or erupt into violence. Lee carries this air of menace through the first half of the play until there’s a role reversal. Austin is the reverse, a whiny coward who doesn’t appear to be brave enough, letting his older brother smack him around and make threats. At one point, Lee demands the car keys, and Austin hands them over without a fight. 

These men represent two halves of a cultural psyche. One is an attempt at control, a measured way of thinking & living, the suburban “civilized man.” He works as a writer, which has become sucked up by the establishment and is another corporate job under the guise of being an “artist.” This is Austin, a family man who is stable and rational. Lee, on the other hand, wears filthy clothes and has unkempt hair. He is chaotic, unpredictable, and, therefore, dangerous. While Austin clacks away at the typewriter, Lee begins stealing televisions, amassing quite a collection for himself. The whole play’s first act is about outlining these contradictions between the brothers to set up the flip in the middle of the story.

The conflict centers around which story is worthy of telling. Is it Austin’s art house, serious drama, or Lee’s exaggerated tale of revenge chock full of coincidences to keep the plot going? What Shepard is going for here is that we cannot live by extracting one of these aspects from our psyche. We are incomplete people in that way, and most people live in total imbalance with themselves. 

Some of Austin’s comments about Lee’s screenplay illuminate the more significant themes happening under the surface of True West. In this tale of revenge, Lee communicates that both men are riding through the night, unsure of which one is actually in the lead. In the same way, these brothers don’t understand what is going on between them or even who the other is. Mom and Dad are also parallels of the brothers: Mom is suburban and “civilized,” while Dad is a drunkard and constantly needs a loan he’ll never repay. Their divorce results from this dissonance, and their sons continue the tradition.

These brothers are the halves of an artist in the modern world. Should the art one produces be commercially viable? Should it be true to oneself? Should you make art on commission, or should it come in fits & bursts of passion? Are we transformed over time, or do we remain the same confused mass of thoughts & ideas searching for meaning? In America, there is always a sense that society is emerging from some primitive form and into a more enlightened one. 

Yet, the same old problems keep resurfacing. It gets to a point where you realize nothing is truly changing, just the cosmetics. We’ve stepped mere inches from being apes yet think we’re the Starchild. This is the “true west” of the title, the true identity of the Western human, a jumble of contradictions & frustrations trying to destroy itself. And in turn, this is where the West must begin its struggle to make sense of all these artificial and authentic things that compose us. We haven’t created new ideas or forms in a very long time, and we haven’t really reckoned with the ones thought up centuries ago. To become something new, we must embrace what we actually are, and until then, we drunkenly wrestle on the linoleum, trying to strangle ourselves to death with a phone cord.


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