I don’t enjoy Westerns. They do nothing for me. It’s a frequent complaint I have, a well-respected genre that just completely shuts off my brain, and I have a difficult time falling in love with even the most modern updates to the format like Bone Tomahawk & Hell or High Water that are reported to be reinvigorating examples of the genre’s merits. To play directly into the “Actually, it’s really a Western if you think about it” critical cliché, The Dressmaker felt tailor made to shut my stupid mouth on the subject. The film, which is at once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.
Trading in the dusty roads of the American West for the dustier & more desolate landscape of a small Australian town in the 1950s, The Dressmaker may not have the authenticity in setting required to automatically qualify as a Western, but its intent within the genre is unmistakable. Kate Winslet, as fiercely talented & beautiful as ever, rides into town (on a bus instead of the traditional horse) to blaze a path of earth-scorching revenge for a past betrayal. A mother who doesn’t remember her and a community who has shunned her as an alleged murderess distort the facts of a childhood trauma she can’t quite piece together until the dust fully settles. Instead of establishing her dominance with a six-shooter, she fires off her sewing machine, crafting fashion so eye-meltingly gorgeous that the town that once conspired against her is powerless under the influence of her needle. They attempt to put an end to her coup by bringing in a hired gun seamstress as competition, but Winslet’s needle-slinging protagonist consistently proves to be the best dressmaker the town has ever seen. She will not rest until she knows the truth about her own past and everyone in her path is draped in her finery – dead, or alive & ruined.
There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most cherishable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with camp tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. In the same film where Hugo Weaving plays a crossdressing sheriff with a John Waters mustache and enough room is set aside for a shameless drunk to heckle Sunset Boulevard, there’s also a romantic throughline that makes a boy toy out of Liam Not-Thor Hemsworth, pitch black revelations of rape & domestic abuse, accusations of witchcraft, jaw-to-the-floor wardrobe gazing (duh) and just about any other tonal left turn you can conjure. It has the small town melancholy of a The Last Picture Show, the over-the-top cartoon pomp & costuming of Death Becomes Her, and the in-cold-blood retribution of Westerns I can’t name because I usually sleep through them, sometimes before the title card. The Dressmaker is more than everything I wanted it to be. In a way it was also just everything, full stop.
Please don’t let all of this talk of violent Westerns & high camp cartoons steer you from watching this film, because it has so much more to offer outside those contexts. Regardless of genre, it’s a fascinating work in its rarity as an aggressively feminine revenge tale, one that feels so foreign in its isolated Australian Mortville setting & its worlds away from Hollywood tone that it’s almost operating in a realm of magic. The only other film from 2016 I could compare its general vibe to is the modernist Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, but even that breath of fresh air can’t match the excitement & satisfaction of The Dressmaker’s consistent novelty. It’s a wholly unique experience, the kind of cinematic idiosyncrasy we’re all hoping to find when we go to the movies. The more I reflect back on it, the more I feel lucky to have seen it at all.
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