A Million Ways to Die in the West, the latest from Family Guy purveyor Seth MacFarlane, has violence written into its title. So why did the abuse perpetrated against one of its female characters have to feel so disturbingly real?
The whole concept of Seth MacFarlane's western is that the 19th Century frontier was a place where one could quite easily die, and the deaths are, as one might expect, over the top. One man keels over after farting. Another is slaughtered when a gigantic block of ice falls on top of him. (That one's a highlight of the trailer.) There are bar brawls and fires ignited by cameras. But these deaths might have just as well been animated, they're so purposefully cartoonish.
But when Liam Neeson's bandit Clinch grabs the throat of his wife Anna, played by Charlize Theron, my stomach turned. Same when he slaps her, and then, as she's on the ground, begins undressing as if he's about to rape her. That conclusion is, thankfully, averted when she hits him over the head with a rock and escapes.
The argument that, yes, women were treated poorly in the Old West, does not hold measure when MacFarlane's aim is clearly not period accuracy. And while you could say that Clinch's treatment of Anna gives the movie actual stakes, a comedy like this doesn't need those kind of stakes when it's aiming for laughs as broad as the ones Macfarlane's delivering here. (Death by fart, folks.)
But didn't I know what I was getting into? After all, this is a movie written, directed, and starring man responsible for the "We Saw Your Boobs" Oscar song. His co-writers are responsible for Fox's Dads. Yes, true, it's hard to say I wasn't warned. And for the most part, the depiction of women in the movie is what I would expect from MacFarlane. The plot revolves around MacFarlane's sheep-farmer character, Albert, getting dumped by Amanda Seyfried's Louise, a vapid girl who soon takes up with the mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, whose character poops into multiple hats). Albert soon meets Theron's Anna, who is the perfect example of the "Cool Girl" Gillian Flynn describes in Gone Girl. She's a male fantasy: extremely hot and into drinking and shooting and eating pot cookies. She has no tolerance for a silly girl like Louise. She says things like: "Sometimes a girl needs to get a few assholes out of her system before she realizes what a good guy looks like." The good guy, of course, is MacFarlane's character, only he doesn't know she is actually married to a ruthless baddie. When Clinch finds out Anna has kissed another man, he comes to claim his wife, and Albert is forced to battle him to win and save her.
Hence, Anna spends the movie's latter section being victimized by Clinch, briefly escaping to tell Albert that she and Clinch got married when she was 9. There's a series of jokes about this, in which the punchline is ostensibly statutory rape, a subject that manages to get even less funny after watching Clinch batter Anna in such a visceral way.
There's a lot to take issue with in A Million Ways to Die in the West, but as we attempt to engage in a national discussion about the ubiquitous nature of misogyny thanks to #YesAllWomen, the domestic violence in the movie sticks out like a sore thumb. While the movie makes its titular million ways to die in the west somehow fantastical, it allows Clinch's abuse to be troublingly realistic. His violence toward Anna is an anomaly in the movie—it's scary not silly. (It doesn't help that Neeson and Theron are the two least "comedic" actors in the film, making their scenes clash with the dumb comedy all the more starkly.)
It'd be nice — okay, it'd be tolerable — if MacFarlane found a way to comment on this through the rest of the film, but he's not really interested in commenting on this (or anything else, really, save for perhaps diarrhea and Doc Brown). So these scenes of a woman threatened just exist, sadly, disgustingly. Anna needs to be saved by Albert, and Clinch is just an asshole she needed to "get out of her system."