Red Dead Redemption revisited, through the lens of cinema

Red Dead Repemption

EXT – Los Santos – Day

There’s a series of trucks parked in a rough circle. Like a ritual. A meet. It’s silent. There are torn up bodies all around. One is breathing. Barely. There’s a bag of money on the gravel, among the spit and the dirt. Our hero picks up the bag. His troubles begin…

This is a very specific scene from Grand Theft Auto V, not tied to the main story and therefore not guaranteed to cross your mind as anything of major importance as you cruise Los Santos over the coming days, weeks, months. In fact, it’s actually a very meticulous recreation of a pivotal scene from the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, and anyone familiar with the film’s opening will immediately identify the homage.

It’s a striking reminder of how cinema influences Rockstar productions. This is clearly a studio of cineastes, layering its worlds with quiet minutiae only film buffs or set designers would pick up on. More symbolically, however, this moment signifies that Rockstar, as with urban crime writers and film directors stretching back to James M. Cain and Howard Hawks, deal in those classic American morality tales: westerns. Even if they’re set in the city streets rather than the old country, with crumpled newspaper replacing tumbleweed, Rockstar’s games carry the DNA of the classic (and also more obscure) movie western. It was this specific scene in GTAV, riffing on a film that itself was a contemporary western, which lead me back to Red Dead Redemption and the rugged realm of its most memorable state, New Austin.

When I’ve previously picked up a Rockstar game I’ve usually been struck hard and fast by the wider world of film and pop culture weighing down with its inspirations and iconography on the game’s design and direction. Whether its Ray Liotta’s strained tones in Vice City, the bombastic Boyz N The Hood-style eccentricities of San Andreas’ denizens or the OTT idealised glamour masking a rotten Los Angeles in LA Noire, torn from pages of James Ellroy’s seminal LA Quartet, i’ve often felt like I was playing a simulacrum of other artists’ works.

How wonderful, then, that the first thing that strikes me, post-GTA V, about Red Dead Redemption is that it’s the purest, rawest distillation of Rockstar’s own unique thematic and narrative obsessions rather than those of the creators it reveres. It’s the only Rockstar sandbox where I’m secondarily reminded of a whole spectrum of genre influences without first being distracted and lambasted by them. Red Dead Redemption, first and foremost, is its own beast, its own tale, reminiscent of others in the wider western family, sure, but so much its own being that others can – and do – fade into the background if you’re here purely to live out John Marston’s story.

Rockstar’s works have always been about jungles, not cities, about placing you in the shoes of the most dangerous animal on the planet: an outsider. The old, ancient west of New Austin is the closest to a raw ecological world the developer will likely ever come, unless a Tarzan open-world sim comes along (which I’d welcome, by the way). There’s a smattering of law and order in New Austin, of course, but it’s hardly visible amidst the cacti and cowboys. Animals lower on the food chain are shot and skinned for profit in much the same way that pedestrians are stabbed, shoved and mugged in the world of Niko Bellic or Claude.

Quentin Tarantino, frequently cited as a touchstone and reference point for Rockstar’s work (to say nothing of how derivative of and indebted to the director’s work and words its games often are), operates in two distinct filmmaking universes. There’s the ‘realer’ universe of Resevoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction where real-world physics and fatalities apply and the ‘movie movie’  universe of Kill Bill, all comic-book colour, winks, nods, fountains of blood and borrowed beats and cues.

I feel it’s the same with Rockstar. There’s the Rockstar ‘movie’ universe, one of overt references and lifted ideas and moments – the world of LA Noire and GTA V, for example – and an alternate realm I’d call Rockstar’s ‘original’ universe, which is much more individual while still able to conjure memories of similar source material. I’d lump Bully, Manhunt and Red Dead Redemption into this category.

For me, Red Dead Redemption is the standout example of Rockstar’s ‘original’ universe. The iconography and pulpy pace can’t help conjure the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Pale Riders, but this is no Django Unchained, there’s no constant reminder of the auteurs, the directors, the virtual puppet masters behind the curtains. Cutscenes are shot in a traditional, classical Hollywood style: the camera is functional and unobtrusive. This is honest videogame filmmaking with few tricks beyond the established rules of cinematic framing and composition. There are no subversive cutaways or splash screens, no daring matches on action, no distracting mise en scene or sensational shootouts; violence – like much of the dialogue – is largely reserved for your own in-game activities lest its effect be diluted and cheapened by repetition.

The world of New Austin may be a beacon of Rockstar’s ‘original’ universe, cramming in its own unique thematic preoccupations, but it’s wide open, too. Not just in its nature as an open-world but in its visual identity. It is all-encompassing and open to multiple readings like no other Rockstar habitat before or since. Liberty City, San Andreas and Los Santos were all too near renditions of contemporary cities and settings (and their filmic interpretations from a century of cinema) to allow us to project our own unique visions onto them wholeheartedly. To me, they were all cities based on film sets that themselves were based on cities. But New Austin is like water; it can be moulded to whatever western vision you bring to its rugged, wretched land. It feels more “real” in both its causality and craftsmanship. But that doesn’t stop it from being a cineaste’s dream as well, trumping even the Grand Theft Auto series for its rich tapestry of influences.

Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just blur the boundaries of intertextual film references as you traverse its lands of loss and labour, it blurs the boundaries of the micro-genres within the western itself. For a start, the game’s first third might actually be classed more as a ‘southern’ than a western, a rather recent sub-set of the genre defined in and by films like The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada; films that deal – as Red Dead Redemption does – with the accelerated change and deep, tumultuous cultural exchange of border-towns and primitive boroughs. But in its scattershot of stylistic influences it’s also part Spaghetti western (Marston himself is equal parts Franco Nero’s original Django and Eastwood’s Man With No Name) and part horror western, with a wealth of gothic subplots involving everything from grave-robbing to psychologically damaged widows waiting for dead husbands to return – a strand given centre stage in the game’s grotesque DLC pack, Undead Nightmare. But then in structure and plotting Red Dead Redemption is also part road-western, like Hombre or The Searchers and 3:10 To Yuma; westerns that follow a traveller from A to B with all the mishaps and misshapen personalities in-between. And then, finally, Marston’s story manages to close out with a revisionist twist, aligning itself more with the western that was supposed to trigger a genre revival in 1992 but instead proved such a colossal achievement it likely scared everyone else away for the next two decades: Unforgiven.

If you’re on the lookout, there are even shades of cinema in the game’s mechanics. The default camera positioning; all high negative space and wide, panoramic angles, gives the same sort of expanded horizontal viewing plane of Technirama or any other high-quality 35mm projection (again, think The Searchers or Gunfight At The OK Corral). The Deadeye aiming – along with that huge silver machine gun that crops up in New Austin’s mines – echoes the groundbreaking slow-motion cross-cutting of Sam Peckinpah’s shootouts in The Wild Bunch and The Getaway. And this is to say nothing of the game’s equally layered soundscape, set design and its other regions. The list goes on, if you can believe it.

This epic patchwork world takes days, weeks, to unpack and understand if you’re a film fanatic. When I sit down with Red Dead Redemption it’s one of the few titles where I feel like I’m sizing it up, trying to read its hand of homages rather than being beaten over the head by them. It’s like a movie quiz without incorrect answers. A mother-brain of film that wants me to crack its complex code. For people like me Red Dead Redemption is a secret sanctuary of film genre but the beauty – unlike many other Rockstar titles – is that it doesn’t get in the way of the game’s core story.

Last month we said GTA V’s message to the industry was “beat that”. For the budding or brave cineaste, Red Dead Redemption’s is even more intimidating: “spot that”.