Wyoming on the silver screen: A film professor’s Top 5 list

in arts and culture

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Not many movies are shot in Wyoming, but a handful of great films are set in the state.

Here’s a top five “Wyoming in movies” list compiled by Central Wyoming College Film Professor Jeremy Nielsen, who worked in film production for years before settling down with his wife and kids to teach cinema in Riverton.

The movies are listed in alphabetical order, because each stands equally on its own merit, Nielsen explained.

“Brokeback Mountain”

Set in 1963, “Brokeback Mountain” is the story of two ranch hands, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, who experience love while working as shepherds on a fictional mountain in Wyoming.  

“These characters are literal cowboys and spend a summer alone together on the mountain and tending the herd — literally living off the land,” Nielsen explained. “There’s a certain American machismo associated with that type of work and that icon. Exploring that in this story, which to most people is not macho, is an interesting dichotomy.”

The movie details a homosexual affair at a time when the world was less receptive to non-traditional lifestyles. Even though it debuted in 2005, audiences greeted it with mixed reactions, especially in traditionally conservative Wyoming. 

“Despite the differences you have with the characters, you can find a lot of similarities in their experiences — heartbreak and the sadness of love not working out,” Nielsen said.

“Hateful 8”

Directed by Quentin Tarantino, “Hateful 8” stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern as eight strangers who seek refuge from a blizzard at a Wyoming stagecoach stop.

True to its name, Nielsen said by the end of the movie, the viewer isn’t really compelled to like any one of the eight.

“That dislike of the main characters — it’s very post-modern in a way that’s very in style nowadays,” he said. “You find yourself laughing at things that are very horrible. That’s also very in style, right now.”

Like many Tarantino films, the movie highlights racism, violence and apathy in a brash motif of humanity’s worst traits. Shot mostly in Colorado, the movie’s biggest tie to Wyoming might be the fur coat worn by Kurt Russel’s character, Nielsen said. The coat was made by Merlin’s Hide Out in Thermopolis.

“It’s unique in that Tarantino is trying to keep the Western genre alive with a couple films so far,” Nielsen said. “It’s decisively a Western film, but clearly repackaged in a whole new light like (Tarantino) does.”

“Red Rock West”

“Red Rock West” is a neo-noir film set in a small Wyoming town, starring Nicholas Cage and Dennis Hopper.

“Noir films were famous for generally four things: stories about society’s underbelly, a narrator, high-contrast lighting and featuring a femme fatale,” Nielsen said. “’Red Rock West’ has all of those.”

Nicholas Cage is mistaken for hit man as he passes through the town of Red Rock, and though Cage takes the money for an assignment, he has a change of heart when it comes time to pull the trigger.

“When (Cage) rolls into the town, the film features these gigantic, panoramic shots reminiscent of old Westerns,” Nielsen said. “Also, I find it interesting that most noir films are set in cities — areas full of people where the society’s dark side can be easily exposed. But, here you see it in a rural setting, which I think sets this film apart.”

“Shane” 

Starring Alan Ladd as a gunslinger looking for a quiet place to settle down, “Shane” paints Wyoming in all the Technicolor beauty 1953 had to offer.

“It’s the prototypical Western story of a hard-on-their-luck family in the Rocky Mountains being terrorized by a band of ne’er-do-wells,” Nielsen said. “It’s got the famous ending of the hero has saved everyone, but he’s been injured, and he knows he has to leave.”

The movie was shot in Wyoming near the Grand Tetons and is listed third in the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Western movies of all time.

“To me, it’s this kind of clash between the wild and civilization,” Nielsen said. “That’s kind of the story of Wyoming.”

“Unforgiven”

Diving in the opposite direction of the prototypical Western, “Unforgiven” stars Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman as gunslingers reluctantly taking one last job to get vengeance for a group of prostitutes.

“It’s another example of the post-modernist Western and exemplifies the anti-hero,” Nielsen said.

Filmed in 1992, the movie took the cinema world by storm and won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It ranks fourth on AFI’s Top Top 10 Western movies of all time and was shot mostly in Canada.

“Wyoming on paper is oftentimes dismissed, but like the Western genre, it can defy those odds and still be successful,” Nielsen said, explaining “Unforgiven” was originally overlooked for being made long after Westerns were considered dead. “If a movie is this good, it doesn’t matter genre it falls into.”

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