Acid Western is a subgenre of the Western film that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that combines the metaphorical ambitions of critically acclaimed Westerns, like Shane and The Searchers, with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the1960s counter-culture. Acid Westerns subvert many of the conventions of earlier Westerns to “conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins”.
The term “Acid Western” was coined by film critic Pauline Kael in a review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film, El Topo, published in the November 1971 issue of The New Yorker. Jonathan Rosenbaum expanded upon the idea in his June 1996 review of Jim Jarmusch’s filmDead Man, a subsequent interview with Jarmusch for Cineaste, and later in the book Dead Man from BFI Modern Classics.
In the book, Rosenbaum illuminates several aspects of this re-revisionist Western: from Neil Young’s haunting score to the role of tobacco, to Johnny Depp’s performance, to the film’s place in the acid-Western genre. In the chapter “On the Acid Western”, Rosenbaum addresses not only the hallucinogenic quality of the film’s pace and its representation of “reality”, but also argues that the film inherits an artistic and political sensibility derived from the 1960s counterculture which has sought to critique and replace capitalism with alternative models of exchange.
In the traditional Western, the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement, but in the Acid Western, it is the reverse, a journey towards death; society becomes nightmarish.