How many times can the West die?
The Last Picture Show opens the same way as so many Westerns: wind whipping through an empty frontier town, kicking up the dust so strongly you wouldn’t be surprised to see a tumbleweed roll by. But instead of a couple of swaggering lawmen riding through on their steeds or a pair of weathered cowboys pushing up the brims of their Stetsons, our heroes are two disheveled high school football players taking flak from just about everyone in town about their most recent loss.
The boys are Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), and the film wastes no time in letting you know exactly where the boys stand. The first line we hear is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) telling Sonny, “You ain’t never gonna amount to nothin’.” We then see a parade of townsfolk belittle the boys at every turn.
“A few football teams had some luck with tackling . . .” says one of them sarcastically, “Keeps the other team from scorin’.” Sonny and Duane seemingly let the criticisms roll off their backs, shooting back, “Sounds too rough for me!” But this sets up an important dynamic: adults expect things of the kids, and they’re endlessly frustrated when the kids can’t (or won’t) meet those expectations.
The film plays with the audience’s expectations in much the same way. So while the opening shot’s long pan through the one-horse town reminds us of the Wild West, the series of jibes and disappointments that follow make it clear that what we’re seeing is more reminiscent of the death of the Wild West.
In Westerns (as in history), the close of the West is due to modernization, which causes the heroes that once patrolled it to lose their sense of purpose and place in the world. This is exactly what’s happening in Anarene. It’s also why Bogdanovich called the town Anarene, a departure from the novel the film is based on. In The Last Picture Show, Anarene’s fate on screen mirrors its fate in reality. In both towns (the fictional and the real), the discovery of a nearby oil well essentially signed a death warrant. The jobs it created would last only so long as the well was active, and as it dried up, so did the rest of the town until there was nothing left.
We meet Bogdanovich’s Anarene in the midst of its last gasps. There’s no mistake; the town is already dying from the second we see it on screen. We never get to see what it used to be, and in fact, we never really hear about it, either. The most reminiscing we get is from Sam the Lion, and that has more to do with the great love of his life than anything relating to the town itself. It’s as if the town was always been destined to become a ghost town, as if it could never be anything else.
This is part of why we see so many adults pushing the kids to be better football players, better role models, better students. There’s no one that speaks of hoping the kids will carry on the family business. There’s no pressure to stay, only the push to leave. At the same time, the kids have no role models to look to. There isn’t anyone that’s made it out of the town, and so none of them really know how or understand why they’d want to go. After all, their parents didn’t leave, did they? Their universe is small and we watch all of them struggle with discovering what it is they really want while in the meantime, they’re content enough with Anarene.
But the world seems to want a better life for these kids, or at the very least a different one. There’s just no road map for the new frontier they face. Just as the cowboy can’t envision what kind of life he’s supposed to lead when trains, cars, and infrastructure snatch away everything he’s ever known, it the same here. In these Westerns, the cowboy dies, whether literally or metaphorically. That’s the classic narrative structure: you must change, or die. There is no other choice.
It plays out much the same with Sonny, Duane, and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Duane, unable to see any other path, would rather sign up for war in Korea than stay. It’s his only way out, meaning even potential death is better than the prospect of staying in Anarene. Jacy also evolves, forgoing her original insistence that she wanted to skip college and marry Duane. Though the film paints her as manipulative, I see her as merely hungry for something more without being able to understand what that is. She craves adventure; she’s too smart for the confines of Anarene. She ultimately sees the light and leaves home for college.
Sonny, however, is the one that dies a metaphorical death. The film makes it impossible for him to leave Anarene. Only twice does he actually leave town, and both times he is punished severely for it.
The first time is when Sonny and Duane head to Mexico. We never see a second of the trip, only the sloppy, hungover aftermath. Sonny’s reward for leaving? He misses his last moments with Sam the Lion who dies while they’re away. He then finds out that Sam left him the pool hall, giving him an immense permanent connection to the town.
The second time is when Jacy and Sonny get married in Oklahoma. Again, the film is unconcerned with the main event and we never see the ceremony, but we do see them pulled over by police and escorted home where Sonny is berated by Jacy’s father. The marriage is annulled.
The final straw is after sweet, simple-minded Billy dies. Overcome by grief, Sonny resumes his relationship with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), an incredibly unhealthy and predatory relationship that cannot possibly have a future. Ruth, trapped by her marriage and status as a middle-aged woman, is desperate for Sonny’s affection and would rather keep him with her than consider his well-being.
And Sonny, too afraid to face an uncertain future, retreats to the comfort of a cage. We can easily imagine him running Sam’s pool hall until he’s as old as Sam himself. No routes of escape are drawn for Sonny.
At this moment toward the end of the film, I’m reminded of an earlier shot. It’s after the Mexico trip, and we see a clear shot of Anarene’s main intersection. Highway signs point out three routes, and all three lead to Texas, as if Anarene sat in some sort of purgatory from which there could never be an escape. All roads would only lead you back to where you’d been.
Ultimately, modernity has come and those that were able to escape have gone. Sonny is alone, clinging to what’s left of the life he’s built. Soon, he’ll be the one making cracks at the football players, hoping that they find a way out the way that he could not. It’s only a question of how long he has left to live even that semblance of a life. The end is coming and only Sonny can’t seem to escape it.