Americans like to think of themselves as pioneers, intrepid explorers testing ourselves against country that’s undiscovered (if only to the people writing the history books). So it’s no particular surprise that among the most important genres we’ve contributed to popular culture is the Western, with its wide, blank skies and harsh human interactions.
As those wide vistas filled up, the pop culture seemed to overcorrect, gravitating to the country’s most populated centers and treating a few big cities as if they could possibly be stand-ins for the rest of the country. Los Angeles plays itself over and over and over again, as does New York. So it’s a relief that some of the most interesting movies this year looked beyond the confines of those mega-cities to bring fresh eyes to old landscapes and to mine new insights about Americans’ relationships to the land we’ve claimed as our own.
“Boyhood” is a Western, but for much of Richard Linklater’s film, shot over a 12-year period, Texas has a crabbed, child-size look. We see the state as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) sees it: a slice of courtyard in the apartment complex where his mother (Patricia Arquette) fights with his father, the charismatic, often-absent, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke); the confines of a bowling alley where Mason Sr. lectures Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) about birth control and the war in Iraq; a McMansion where the family moves when Mason’s mother remarries for the first time; the back yards where Mason plants Obama signs firmly into the ground; a half-built house where Mason and his friends toss saw blades into drywall, the promised danger never quiet materializing.
The vast skylines — and opportunities — of Texas open up on screen when Mason leaves for college. Where his face once filled the screen, in lazy contemplation or in fury at a stepfather-mandated haircut, the camera lets Mason shrink against the blue, blue sky and rocky outcroppings that line the road along his journey. It’s no mistake that Mason takes out his camera and starts shooting lanterns and fire engines silhouetted against cactus when he stops for gas.
Now that Mason is on his own, “Boyhood” is using the landscape to situate himself in the Western tradition. And Mason is enough a product of a contemporary media culture to be looking for the symbols that will elevate his own adventure from a mundane ritual into a grand tradition, even if his conveyance is a battered pickup rather than a trusty steed.
“Wild,” Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is animated by a similar sense that letting yourself be overwhelmed by the world can be a way to get situated and to grow strong, rather than making you feel lost or insignificant. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, who adapted the book through her production company) heads out into the wilderness after wrecking her marriage through infidelity and a stint of heroin use, both responses to her agonizing pain after the death of her mother (Laura Dern).
Strayed is alone on screen for much of the movie, and the drama of the film comes from Strayed’s attempts to stop smashing up her own life and instead fit herself to her new surroundings. The process is not without cost, particularly to Strayed’s feet, which shed their toenails under the pressure of ill-fitting boots. But the challenges of the road, and the beauty of the landscape as Strayed moves through it, prove soothing to her. By the time she reaches the grandiosely named “Bridge of the Gods” at the end of “Wild,” Strayed seems bigger, and the world around her seems to have shrunk down to scale. Neither woman nor wild have conquered the other, but instead, they have found a way to fit together.
And in “Interstellar,” we have a hero of another old-fashioned sort. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer struggling to hold on in a futuristic version of the Midwest suffering through a self-inflicted environmental catastrophe that director Christopher Nolan slyly links to the Dust Bowl. He is a man of great technical proficiency — his farm is tended to by mechanized tractors, and he harvests a processor from an Indian surveillance drone — and despite his disappointments at his missed opportunities to be an astronaut, still capable of wonder.
“Interstellar” delivers when, through plot mechanisms that are too complicated to discuss here (and that it is unwise to contemplate at any length), Cooper discovers that NASA has secretly relocated to the Midwest. Whether it’s because the agency was seeking a grander staging ground for its final bid to save humanity than Cape Canaveral could offer, or with a mind to Cooper stumbling upon the agency, it turns out there are spaceships in them thar cornfields. While Cooper takes one in search of a new home for humanity, carried away from his family by relativity, his daughter Murphy (Jessica Chastain) sets to work on another survival strategy for mankind in a different timeline.
When she cracks the math that lets NASA build space stations big enough to act as an escape valve for Earth, scientists build not new and more futuristic cities, but replicas of farm fields and suburban back yards, complete with glass windows ready to be broken by errant baseballs, with a little help from the station’s unusual shape and gravity. Even if the policies that created those big cornfields and glossy lawns lead to drought and disaster on our home planet, it seems the idea of them is so powerful that we have to export them into space to truly persist as a species.
But as liberating as the bigness of America is for Mason and Cheryl, and as many wonders as it holds for Cooper, it takes on a more sinister cast in a number of other films.
For Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), having to move from New York, where she grew up, to Missouri, the childhood home of her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), after they both lose their jobs and Nick’s mother falls ill, is a kind of death. “Gone Girl,” David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s macabre novel, presents the Show-Me State as a drab place, photographed in shades of gray and brown and dotted with anonymous McMansions. Amy may hate the drab stage to which she has been transplanted. But she still manages to use the scenery she despises to stage a risky and thrilling revenge on Nick, whom she blames for transplanting her to unfamiliar and hostile soil.
That eerie aridness marks “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller’s chilly movie about wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir to a great American fortune, who recruited the Schultzes to his Foxcatcher Farm to be the core of a training team. It always seems to be winter at Foxcatcher, frost hanging over its rolling hills and a beautiful horse cantering through the fog.
The characters spend much of their time in airless, windowless spaces, though, grappling in gyms or bingeing and purging in hotel rooms to make weight before matches. This retreat away from the beauty around them is a symptom of the diseased atmosphere that du Pont has created. He sits under a framed flag and pontificates about how “I am leading men, and I am giving America hope.” But du Pont’s ambition to essentially buy control of the national wrestling team is based on a sense of privilege utterly contrary to meritocratic American ideals. Du Pont is a profoundly unnatural creature, isolated in natural beauty he barely seems to acknowledge.
And in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a virus has wiped out much of humanity, and the Muir Woods are encroaching on San Francisco, where a few people try to figure out if they can live in peace with the apes who survived a vicious animal-testing experiment that left them with enhanced intelligence. Silicon Valley’s world-conquering ambitions have never looked quite so fragile.
If Americans were once animated by Manifest Destiny, the idea that we were to build cities and towns from coast to coast, these six very different movies are about what comes after we fulfill that dream. Whether characters are accepting how small they are when pitted against the big world in “Boyhood” and “Wild,” trying to reckon with land that seems to have become hostile to humanity in “Interstellar” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” or getting lost when they leave the big city in “Gone Girl” and “Foxcatcher,” our relationship to the place we settled is still a core part of the American idea and the American experience.