A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Bob Hoose

Movie Review

The Wild West is … wild. They wouldn’t have repeated the word in the title of that one weird Will Smith movie if it weren’t. And that makes it a big fat dangerous bummer to live in—if you can manage to stay alive at all.

In 1882 Arizona, people die every day from just about everything you can imagine: wolves, warriors, outlaws, cold sores. Why, even the doctors are more apt to hurt you than heal you. In fact, from Albert Stark’s point of view, everything out there that’s not you likely wants to kill you.

The only reason he’s even stuck around to raise sheep in his little town of Old Stump is because of love. That’s right, loser Albert has found unlikely love with a true beauty named Louise. Albert really has no idea why this lovely lady has graced him with her company and allowed him such unexpected happiness … and the truth is, Louise is starting to wonder why, too. After Albert backs out of a gunfight in front of the whole town, Louise starts to think that he’s nothing more than a coward. And everybody knows a woman can’t be connected to a man who smells like sheep and is also a coward. You’ve got to think about the future. Especially with all these cold sores going around.

And so Louise breaks up with Albert and starts promenading with that mustache emporium owner Foy. Albert is put out. What’s that dandy fop got that he doesn’t? Besides money, a business, a nice home, a sharp-looking wardrobe and a manly mustache, that is.

Well, maybe it’s time Albert just up and left this hated Wild West behind him. But hold on to your wild horses! Albert has now made the acquaintance of a new gal around town. Anna is incredible! She’s beautiful, sensible, smart as a whip and a sincere friend who can talk her way out of any corner, not to mention shoot a fly off the nose of a prairie dog at 30 paces. Why, she’s nigh-on perfect. She even starts teaching fumble-fingered Albert how to shoot straight. Albert’s still a-pinin’ over Louise, but Anna is starting to set his mind straight.

There’s one big and wild problem, though. And it’s something ol’ Al isn’t even aware of. Anna, you see, is already married. And her outlaw husband, the dreaded gunslinger Clinch Leatherwood, is due in town in 12 days.

Now that truly is a big fat dangerous bummer.

Positive Elements

In the midst of the film’s crude-to-obscene jokes, crazy-to-deadly pratfalls, ribald and raw dialogue, and gratuitously gory visuals, Albert and Anna’s friendship and, later, love is actually quite sincerely tender. She encourages him to value himself more highly, making it plain that he has much to offer those around him. Never you mind, she insists, that he’s not the hard-knuckled, gun-blazing kind of guy his fellow Westerners might think he should be. In turn, Albert treats Anna with the kind of friendship, gentleness and respect that she’s not accustomed to but desperately longs for.

Spiritual Elements

Albert’s friends Edward and Ruth report that they’re both churchgoing Christians. And that they want to wait until they marry to have sex with each other. (The key to that commitment is each other, ’cause Ruth is already a seasoned saloon prostitute who continues to have regular sex with 10 to 15 men a day). Albert quips about Parkinson’s disease, saying it’s “just another way that God mysteriously shows He loves us.” He tells a story of a murderous pastor, and he claims he’s Islamic and must recite an “Arabic Death Chant” before dying. He burbles out some nonsensical gibberish in doing so.

Sexual Content

In contrast with her private “Christian” relationship with Edward, Ruth is quite comfortable with being a prostitute in public. She wears a cleavage-baring outfit designed to entice Johns. We hear her in the heat of copulation, crying out sexual crudities. She talks regularly of the various acts her customers demand of her. (Edward is once forced to wipe certain unmentionable fluids from her face.) She shows Edward parts of her anatomy that he can look forward to. (The camera remains above her waistline as she describes in detail what he’s staring at.) We see the couple eventually having sex under a blanket.

We’re also shown Foy and Louise’s interactions in bed, some of which involve masturbation. Other visuals and dialogue deal with sheep genitalia and bestiality, anal and oral sex, sexual body parts and the frequency of certain sexual activities. We see Clinch’s bare backside (which Anna sticks a flower into).

Violent Content

This pic doesn’t actually show us a million ways that the West can waste you. Even at one death per second, after all, that would make for a movie that lasts 11 days. But it does show us quite a large number of deaths as a running gag, some of which are gruesome.

For example, a man is crushed beneath a huge block of ice. A photographer’s gunpowder flash explodes, blowing off his arm and setting him on fire. The fire spreads to others, and bystanders shoot them to put them out of their misery. A salesman is gored by a charging bull. The town mayor is dragged away by wolves. (Wild ones, naturally.) A bar fight produces broken arms and legs, right along with cracked skulls. A broken bottle is shoved into a victim’s neck. The sheriff is beaten to death. Numerous people are shot. We see a dog carrying a man’s severed foot in its mouth.

There also seem to be a million ways to merely get hurt in the West, as Albert is grazed by a bullet in a gunfight and thumped in the head with plates and rocks. He stumbles off a high rock outcropping and falls face-first off his horse. In a bizarre vision, he kicks a large man-bird in its dangling scrotum. Anna is choked and slapped by her husband. And as he undresses to rape her, she knocks him unconscious with a rock.

Crude or Profane Language

Over 50 f-words and 30 s-words. There are six or eight (and up to a dozen) uses each of “h‑‑‑,” “a‑‑hole” and “b‑‑ch.” God’s and Jesus’ names are together abused a couple-dozen times (“god” getting combined with “d‑‑n” at least five). Crude and obscene terms are applied to sexual anatomy (everything from “d‑‑k” to “c‑‑k” to “p‑‑‑y” and more).

Drug and Alcohol Content

Cowhands and other weathered residents of the West regularly guzzle mugs of beer while smoking pipes and cigars at the saloon and at a square dance. After his breakup with Louise, Albert gets falling-down drunk and proceeds through a series of face-first comic tumbles. His friend exhorts him with, “You shouldn’t drink and horse.”

Albert and Anna share a cigarette. They eat a marijuana-laced cookie and then rapturously enjoy a beautiful sunset together. Albert drinks a bowlful of a herbal hallucinogenic with a tribe of Indians and has strange visions. The trip helps him quite a lot, and we hear an Indian say, “The only way for a man to find happiness is to take drugs in a group.”

The label on a bottle of sideshow tonic says it contains both cocaine and morphine.

Other Negative Elements

A million or so crude gags never seem to die in this movie, as it jabs at everything from racism to sexual perversities to defecation. One wicked example: A fairgrounds shooting arcade called “Runaway Slave” challenges gunmen to shoot down moving images of running black children. And I’ll stop after documenting just one more: A man with bowel problems defecates repeatedly in another man’s hat and then trips over a makeshift container, spilling the malodorous contents.


Seth MacFarlane’s big screen directorial debut Ted, a raunchy comedy about a bong-smoking, foulmouthed teddy bear, was a surprise hit. It was created for $50 million and earned more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide, making it the most successful live-action comedy of all time.

Yep, you read that right. Sorry to have to report it.

So if you’re Mr. MacFarlane—who initially grabbed public attention as the creator of the vulgar animated TV show Family Guy—what does that earn you? Well, besides a hefty paycheck and a very visual shot at hosting the Academy Awards, it gives you the green light to create whatever follow-up movie your crude little heart desires.

In this case, that turns out to be a lavish, starring-role vanity pic, a Western send-up with lots of cinematic panoramas, an expensive-looking production design and a top-shelf cast of stars and celebrity walk-ons.

That’s not to suggest, however, that it’s a movie worth swinging onto your bronco and galloping off to the multiplex to see. For all of its polished accoutrements, A Million Ways to Die in the West feels like a disjunct ruckus, 15 minutes of actual story stretched out to 2 hours of comedy colly.

There’s a general sense of cheeriness at play, often incongruously. But the pic ends up as nothing more than a steady stream of puerile fart and defecation gags, sheep penis close-ups, not-exactly-true-to-the-period cussing, wince-worthy racial slurs and salacious sexual guffaws. Kudos are kicked over in the direction of drug and alcohol abuse, and general gross-out images include a string of deaths that begin with a giant block of ice gorily pulping an unfortunate guy’s mug.

“When I read the script, it made me giggle a lot, let’s put it that way. And I blushed quite a few times, too,” says the movie’s star baddie Liam Neeson in a Today show interview. “And I thought, ‘No, they’re not going to shoot this. No, they cannot shoot this. They won’t be allowed to get away with this!’ But they did.”

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.