If John Ford’s classic western The Searchers contemplates the violent disconnect between past memories and ongoing traumatic experiences, then Alex Cox’s strange modern homage Searchers 2.0 reveals the artificiality of such thematic undercurrents. In Cox’s enigmatic and often childish road film, the palpable rage of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards has been replaced by the faded frustrations of two bumbling Hollywood burn-outs seeking vengeance on a screenwriter who tortured them as child actors. Their journey for retribution is not about salvaging some form of innocence from an evil primal force, but languishing in permanent preparation mode, chatting about the good old days, and disavowing the very institutional machine they supposedly idolize.
Cox’s heroes meet haphazardly, as day laborer Mel (Del Zamora) hears classic western theme music on the wind, luring him to Frank’s (Ed Pansullo) front door like a siren’s call. After the first of many minimalist and supposedly comedic standoffs, the two men loosely banter about their shared hatred for abusive scribe Fritz Frobisher (Sy Richardson), then plot their improvised revenge at a road-show screening of a famous western film in Monument Valley. Throughout the terribly convoluted conversation, a gigantic poster of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West hangs on Frank’s wall, both an overt antithesis to the men’s lazy actions and a haunting reminder of the pure visceral nature western’s can display. Maybe it’s Cox’s point to surround his deliberately fleeting characters with references and scenarios of more serious films, but this aesthetic choice consistently upends both the comedic situations and staunch moments of commentary.
Hilariously, the men’s journey can only begin with the help of Mel’s savvy and beautiful daughter Delilah (Jaclyn Jonet). Even though convinced to partake in the ramshackle journey under false pretenses, Delilah constantly gets the better of her elders through her keen wit and passion for argument. It’s one of Cox’s few genuine subversive twists regarding gender and genre, giving the keys to his narrative and direction to a cagey younger woman willing to question the absurdity of this journey at every turn. Delilah’s brilliantly volatile mood swings make the trio’s discussions of the insidious nature of corporate logos, classic old movies, and family values more interesting than they should be. For a while, Delilah’s presence allows Searcher’s 2.0 to take on an improvisational beauty, contrasting the random and incomplete conversations against the wide screen vistas of the Old West.
But once Searchers 2.0 gets down to the revenge at hand, Cox reverts back to his simplistic critiques of Hollywood influence and power. The final Leone-like standoff, another blatant display of Cox’s desire to upend all notions of western heroism, uses the character’s mouths as guns and film trivia as bullets in a post modern gunslinger Q&A. It’s a sequence as dumb as it is juvenile, and the preceding twist of fate completely undermines any momentum the film has garnered from its occasionally funny dialogue sequences. In the end, Mel and Frank have just been pawns all along, not in any sort of valuable or wise chess game, but in a dumbfounded game of retarded checkers constructed by a filmmaker unaware of his own talent for rich character studies. Both men are slaves to their own fabricated memories, but unlike Ethan Edwards, the ramifications of their actions belong in a cartoon universe, not a western. Searcher’s 2.0 might frame itself in the world of Ford’s masterpiece, even rip off a few lines and shots, but it comes across as a vengeful middle finger to the importance of genre filmmaking and the Hollywood machine that conducts the controls.
Cox’s wide ranging and unflinching criticism of capitalistic tendencies, so wonderfully pertinent in his revolutionary saga Walker, have never been so blunt and unfocused as in Searchers 2.0 Cox sees the heroism and sacrifice of western film characters as just another tool Hollywood uses to control the masses, a mythology full of alluring inconsistencies and potholes. For a filmmaker so indebted to the western genre, this seems completely unwarranted. But there it is, right in the middle of Searchers 2.0, with jokes referring to Budd Boetticher as “Butt Buttlicker” and the film’s most sincere character saying, “I’m not interested in westerns.” These moments make Cox’s film all the more redundant, both as satire and genre deconstruction. When given the choice between stoicism and cynicism, I’ll take the flickering alleys of classic Hollywood over the angry rants of an unfocused contrarian any day.
Searchers 2.0 is a film of vistas and landmarks of film history, specifically the finely calibrated opening credit sequence shot from a car dashboard overlooking a picturesque western sunset. The nicely rendered digital transfer displays many of the varying colors that make these images iconic. However, during the interior sections, shadow delineation suffers greatly, as character's faces are drowned out in black splotches, lacking detail and clarity. The dialogue levels often rise and fall on a dime, making the audio sometimes overly obnoxious then unintelligible in a second's notice.
The 16-minute documentary "Making of Searchers 2.0" is even more of an incoherent mess than the film, loosely following the production team around from one Monument Valley location to the next. Cox directs a few scenes, muses about the militaristic qualities of America, and the ludicrously high price of gas. These sorts of improvisational extras do nothing to inform the audience about the experience or execution of the production. Much more rewarding is the concise commentary by Alex Cox, his sound designer Richard Beggs, and composer Dan Wool, who discuss at length many of the strange references Searchers 2.0 makes to western film history. But even their knowledgeable discussions can't rectify the film's many failures as art and entertainment satire.
Searchers 2.0 alludes to John Ford's film in name only, using western film mythology as both a platform for absurdist commentary and a simplistic scapegoat for the pervading evil of the Hollywood production system.