SXSW 2023: AMERICANA is Western Crime Poetry

The directorial debut from Tony Tost is an ode to 1970s cinema, and to desperate, hopeless dreamers everywhere

A young boy who is convinced that he is the reincarnation of Sitting Bull. A war veteran who suffers from brain damage, but is ceaselessly kind, soft-spoken, and falls in love easily. A waitress who suffers from a significant speech impediment, with dreams of becoming a singer in Nashville. A Marxist Native American revolutionary. A woman looking for her escape, already running from a troubled home life, and finally seeing an opening for her to live a new life. A criminal who specializes in trafficking stolen Native American artifacts.

These are just some of the characters in Americana, the directorial debut from writer/director Tony Tost that premiered at SXSW this week. When artifact thief Roy Lee Dean (Simon Rex) discovers there is a rare Lakota ghost shirt to be taken, he sets a series of events into motion that have an explosive outcome. Americana is an intentional throwback to the cinema of the 1970s, a Western crime story that is a true ensemble piece that weaves together the plotlines of these characters against the backdrop of the South Dakota wilderness.

The layering storytelling, as well as the intersections of desperate people attempting to use the ghost shirt as their own means of escape, reminds one immediately of other filmmakers like Altman or the Coen Brothers. Unlike the Coens, who could be argued to use the West as a backdrop for broad caricatures for their looser, more broad style of fiasco-fueled filmmaking, Tost creates a more nuanced, if still outsized, vision of this landscape. There are certainly villains one longs to see undone and heroes worth rooting for, but Tost’s script and direction provide a vast landscape to paint with–creating a crime yarn that is somehow both intimate and sprawling.

It helps that Tost works with a cast that is firing on all cylinders. Stand-outs include Paul Walter Hauser as Lefty, the soft-spoken cowboy, and Sydney Sweeney as waitress Penny Jo, whom Lefty befriends and plots to steal the Ghost Shirt for themselves. Hauser and Sweeney are the leads of this ensemble, if there are any, and Sweeney especially shines as the quietly desperate Penny Jo, desperate for an escape, but perhaps a hair too shy to grab for it.

Perhaps the standout is musician Halsey in her live-action acting debut as the beleaguered Mandy, attempting to escape her psychopathic criminal boyfriend. No, clearly the stand-out is Zahn McClarnon as Ghost Eye, a revolutionist Native American who is well-versed in Marx and took his name because he loves the movie Ghost Dog. You know, actually, it has to be…

The point is that seeing an ensemble all clicked into the same vibe and direction is thrilling, as is a film that uses its whole frame to depict a vast Western landscape. Shot in New Mexico, the film fills scenes with broad skies and vast plains. We get the sense that these characters are surrounded by space on all sides, a vast terrain that simply begs for them to wander. A mixture of boredom, desperation, and dreams drives their actions more than logic and clear-headedness. The result is not only explosive, but tense. There is a body count from the very beginning, one that quickly piles up as the film hurtles toward its end. The weight of individual actions and the price paid for them creates an emotional tapestry that speaks to this restlessness, this longing for meaning and place.

It is not surprising that Tost has a history in poetry, as his script is filled with a sort of cowboy poetry that draws you into its bloody tapestry. Yet as the film itself argues, Americans are far more interested in what is possible than what actually lies before them, intrigued with ideal possibilities that lie just outside of their reach. The consequence of that reach is precisely the space that Americana lives in: people who long for more and are willing to do what they need to to get there. When the dust settles, there is a heavy price, one not always paid by who we would wish. Therein lies the poetry, as Tost weaves a violent tale that is somehow both aspirational and cautionary, one that draws the viewer into vast vistas, and sinks them deep in the world of these beautifully drawn and captured characters.

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