Though Western films were a staple of cinema 50 years ago, modern takes on the genre have struggled to keep afloat. Some neo−Western films and television shows have garnered critical acclaim — “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and HBO’s “Deadwood (2004−2006), to name two — yet the golden age of Western films has long since ridden into the sunset.
Despite the genre’s waning popularity, many have tried to bring the olden days back, most recently with FX’s “Justified.” Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, one of the most famous authors of the Western and crime genres, the show focuses on U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a modern−day cowboy who shoots first and asks questions when everyone’s dead.
Raylan’s penchant for shooting on sight gets him in trouble after he kills a drug lord in a restaurant in Miami. Raylan is sent back to the hill country of eastern Kentucky as punishment — he fled his home in Kentucky when he was 19 in order to avoid the life of a coal miner and a family heritage of crime.
Upon returning to Kentucky, Raylan has many foes to confront, including Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), a white supremacist who likes to cause trouble; Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), Raylan’s ex−wife; and the still−unseen Arlo Givens (Raymond Barry), Raylan’s criminal father.
Each episode of “Justified” plays out like a Western/crime−noir novella, while still maintaining an overarching plot that deal with Raylan’s past and the seedy underbelly of this seemingly backwards region.
Olyphant, who had already proved his ability to play an enigmatic Western cop in “Deadwood,” seems to have been waiting for a role like Raylan Givens to come along. True, the show isn’t brutal like “Deadwood” or even as daring as some of FX’s other shows like “Damages” or “Nip/Tuck” (2003−2010), but Olyphant brings Leonard’s spare, meandering prose to the screen with unhesitant ease.
The show’s supporting cast, though not as utterly charismatic as Olyphant, holds its own, from Zea’s still−angry ex−wife to Goggins’ jealous antagonist. Each supporting actor gets just enough screen time to make the viewer want to see more of him or her. This stands in stark contrast to other shows that tire the audience with country bumpkins who don’t hold a candle to the main character.
Raylan’s backstory may unravel too slowly for some viewers. Even the criminal plots limited to each episode tend to drag, sometimes stretching the show a little too thin. Though this may at times test one’s patience, “Justified” perfectly captures the slow−moving, laid−back (even when in the middle of a crime spree) nature of these people in Kentucky.
Some may find that the show’s depiction of Kentuckians perpetuates negative stereotypes of Southerners. Luckily, the show’s description of the Southern lifestyle comes off as benign, as an effort to demonstrate how things are done in the rural South.
“Justified” mostly concerns itself with a question typical of the Western genre — what makes someone good or evil — and the answer has nothing to do with how many people you’ve killed. The show focuses on the slight differences between a cop and a criminal and how each bends the law to his own benefit.
In today’s world of muddled morals, in which television lauds serial killers (“Dexter”) and morally bankrupt advertising executives (“Mad Men”), it would be nice to see Raylan emerge as another anti−hero who kills the bad guy but also gets some pleasure out of it. Technically, all of the people he’s killed so far in the series have deserved death. They were either trying to kill him or a Southern damsel−in−distress. As “Justified” continues, it’s almost certain that Raylan Givens will grow to become one of television’s finest bad good guys viewers love to watch.