As many critics have noted, Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West is short on funny: The pacing is off, a talented cast is given little to do, and the jokes are too lazy and uninspired to provoke much amusement.
But aside from the film’s bland humor—which makes you want to rewatch its most obvious, and far superior, forebear, Blazing Saddles—A Million Ways to Die in the West fails on another level: in its halfhearted attempt to depict a strong, independent female character.
To anyone familiar with MacFarlane’s work, that will likely be unsurprising. This is the same guy who did an entire musical number about famous actresses’ boobs at the Oscars, the same guy who has a penchant for lame rape jokes. But A Million Ways stands out from his oeuvre because MacFarlane does attempt to subvert sexist tropes through the character of leading lady Anna (Charlize Theron). It’s just that he fails. Spoilers follow.
The first time we meet Anna, her independence is evident—she criticizes her abusive husband, the outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), for killing a man. He threatens her, and she’s forced to back down, but her defiance is refreshing. Later, she demonstrates her wit and reveals her talent with a gun, besting the mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris)—whose mustache makes him “manly,” as the film jokingly explains—in a target-shooting contest.
But whatever effort MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellsely Wild put into subverting the Old West stereotypes of women is for naught: Soon it becomes clear that the only reason for Anna’s character to exist is so that she can give MacFarlane’s wimpy, neurotic sheep farmer, Albert, the chance to be a hero.
Albert is terrible at his job—his animals are constantly found wandering town—and still lives with his parents. He’s repulsed by the flourishing culture of violence evident among the gun-happy townspeople and freak accidents that happen every day. In the beginning of the film he manages to talk his way out of a gunfight—in part because he has no idea how to shoot—by promising to pay off his debt. For all these reasons, his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him.
Anna sympathizes with Albert’s plight and coaches him on how to shoot so he can win a duel against Foy and get Louise back. Anna and Albert begin to fall for each other, of course, though she keeps her marriage to Clinch a secret for fear of scaring him away.
Then Clinch arrives in town, upset to learn that a man was seen kissing Anna. He kidnaps his wife and carries her away from town to force her to tell him who it was. After learning the truth, he prepares to rape her. She manages to grab a giant rock and knock him out cold.
Rather than finish him off, however, she takes the time to pluck a flower from the ground and prop it in his bare butt (he has conveniently fallen face down). It’s meant to be lighthearted fun, and also a way to emasculate the alpha male and reduce him, literally, to the butt of the joke. But mostly it sets up Albert as the hero, as she runs back to town to warn him that Clinch will be seeking revenge. It’s not long before Clinch is holding Anna at gunpoint to entice Albert into a fight.
This sort of storyline would be less frustrating if it weren’t so familiar. If women weren’t so woefully under-represented as the protagonists of big-budget movies. If rape or the threat of rape wasn’t used so often, and so clumsily, as a plot device by filmmakers who don’t seem to care about its victims. If we weren’t still watching movies with damsels tied to the proverbial train tracks.
Theron has been praised as one of the few bright spots in the film, and she deserves credit for trying to elevate the movie. But “dialogue with f-bombs galore” and some skill with a gun does not a well-developed female character make. Anna may be a far cry from every other female character in MacFarlane’s world, who are so frequently the punch line of misogynistic jokes. But sadly, she still seems to subscribe to fellow female sharpshooter Annie Oakley’s dated mantra, from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun: “You can’t get a man with a gun.”