The western is one of cinema’s most well-worn, well-known and well-loved genres. Instantly recognizable, they tell tales of revenge, protection, betrayal and humankind’s losing battles with nature – themes that never age.
The genre is most often associated with cowboys like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood – men who shoot fast, speak little, and always do what’s right. The supporting cast of bandits, hookers with hearts of gold, corrupt lawmen and innocent families are as stark and often unforgiving as the desolate frontier landscapes themselves.
Classic though they are, westerns are often viewed as a genre belonging to the past. During the past 15 years, however, the western has undergone a quiet renaissance, with actors at the top of their game from Christian Bale to Michael Fassbender taking the genre on, culminating with Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning his Oscar for frontier western The Revenant in 2015.
The success of the modern western continued this year with Hell or High Water nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2017. If you’re looking to explore the modern end of the genre, we’ve got you covered with a selection of great modern westerns below.
‘3.10 to Yuma’
If you want to start your journey into westerns from familiar territory, the 2007 remake of 1957’s 3:10 to Yuma is an easily digestible western blockbuster, directed by veteran James Mangold. Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, the leader of a gang of outlaws who runs into Christian Bale’s down-on-his-luck rancher Dan Evans.
Circumstances compel Evans to volunteer to forcibly escort Wade to board the eponymous train, but the road ahead is not straightforward.
Make no mistake, this is a big Hollywood action piece, so there are well-choreographed sequences and a lot of swagger – and a less than convincing accent from Russell Crowe. It is stacked with top of the line performances with veterans (Peter Fonda) and character actors (Alan Tudyk) alike.
While it doesn’t strike an alternative path like films such as Slow West, it is an enjoyable watch, and as part of a strong trio of westerns in 2007 – No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – refreshed the genre for a new generation of filmgoers.
If you’re expecting The Big Lebowski in the West from a western directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, this film is definitely not it. When the credits roll on True Grit you see Steven Spielberg’s name immediately follow the Coens’; the more serious emotional notes of the film have Spielberg’s fingerprints all over them.
The dialogue and script lacks the usual levels of the Coen brothers’ signature snap and crackle, as well as missing some of their trademark delightfully weird cameos – the closest thing you get here is a cowboy who inexplicably communicates through animal impressions.
The cast all put in great performances, however, and the shifting dynamics between a very young Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges form a solid, warm core to this film. Steinfeld is improbably, impossibly stoic, and watching her frustrate and wear down all of the adults around her is highly entertaining. Like 3.10 to Yuma, this is a good introduction to the genre and a less brutally violent than some of the others on our list.
This film is something of an unusual proposition; a Danish-directed and produced western. Under Kristian Levring’s eye, perhaps trained by classic European cinema, the action takes a quiet, measured pace. It is a brutal account of life and death on the frontier, and of corruption and power. The fate of some characters reminds us that wit and pluck are not enough to win in a world as tough as the West.
If you’ve seen Slow West, in many aspects The Salvation is its polar opposite – the film looks and feels dark and grimy, almost like it was filmed through a camera obscura. The classic western landscape of yellow lands and blue skies is too bright, to the point where it makes you want to squint and shield your eyes.
This is an unsettling film, and the landscape is a significant component of that. There are flourishes of classic western features; a burst of an orchestral score, a mournful violin, riders on horseback trekking into the sunset. This is a simple yet powerful and understated film; it will linger with you long after the credits have rolled.
If Wes Anderson were to direct a western, it would likely end up looking and feeling a lot like Slow West. The directorial film debut from Scottish musician and music video director John Maclean, Slow West is a dreamy quest in which Michael Fassbender’s wandering rogue Silas accompanies young Scotsman Jay on his quest to reunite with his true love.
Maclean’s film is visually rich, more like a fairytale than a western, and surprisingly tender. The Wes Anderson influence comes from the moments which are anachronistic and out of place, such as a brief interlude where Jay and Silas meet some African musicians on the road, and sweet character quirks; Jay reads the stars every night before he falls asleep. Set in Colorado but filmed in New Zealand, the landscapes are lush and vividly colored in a wide range of saturated blues, greens and yellows, deep golden browns and reds.
The richness of the film’s color palette makes it very distinctive among the harsh desolation of typical western landscapes. This is balanced however by Jed Kurzel’s score, which is mournful and sombre, much like his work on another Fassbender film, Macbeth.
With impressive performances by Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Silas and Jay respectively, and the delightful bonus of Ben Mendelsohn as a cheroot-smoking bounty hunter in a pimping fur coat, Slow West is a bright gem of a modern western, and a must watch on this list.
‘Hell or High Water’
This is a fantastic contemporary take on a bank robbery western, set in a bleak post-GFC world of foreclosures and ghost towns in Texas. The arid, desolate landscapes hold a mirror up to a world of shuttered shop fronts and scant opportunity. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are on a mission to save their family farm through less than legal means; Jeff Bridges is the Texas Ranger on the edge of retirement charged with stopping them. Although the two sides of the law are clear, as the story unfolds it is far less clear who is on the right side of justice.
Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges are all in fine, fine form, but playing Toby Howard is Pine’s career best performance by far, providing an opportunity that he hasn’t had so far to really showcase his abilities as an Oscar-worthy actor. David Mackenzie’s direction is simple, subtle but consistently infused with tension.
That tension is supported by Nick Cave’s score (this is not Nick Cave’s first foray into westerns; see The Proposition), and by Giles Nuttgen’s cinematography, for which he was quite rightly nominated for a 2017 BAFTA. This film made quite a few top 10 lists for 2016, and it’s not difficult to see why. One of the definite must-watches on this list.
Tommy Lee Jones directs this sparse western, which was hailed by some as a rare feminist western when it was released in 2014. With a mournful orchestral soundtrack and a hell of cast including James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, and Meryl Streep, this is a slow-burning and thoughtful character piece with an untraditional story.
The film focuses on the story of George Briggs, the drifter enlisted to chaperone Mary Bee Cuddy on a treacherous journey taking three hysterically insane women back to their families in Iowa. Tommy Lee Jones is his best cantankerous self as Briggs, cursing, fireside dancing, and drinking, an excellent foil to Swank’s serious, steadfast and pious Mary Bee Cuddy.
While it is definitely refreshing to see women at the core of a western story, rather than sidelined, the feminist praise is somewhat misdirected. While we are to sympathize with the women in the story – resourceful, efficient Mary Bee is called “bossy” and “plain”, repeatedly spurned by men we know are unworthy of her – they form part of Briggs’ character journey, rather than being in charge of their own lives and stories.
The film suffers from haphazard editing and a few too many long, searching sequences of desolate frontier landscapes; this detracts from the excellent performances from the film’s whole cast. However it is a well-executed and contemplative character study of a western, and would definitely fit the bill if you’re looking for something a little more cerebral and challenging than the blockbuster swish of 3.10 to Yuma.
‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’
If you like your westerns in black and white, with a good side serving of skateboarding teenage vampires, Ana Lily Amirpour’s “Iranian vampire western” may be a good pick for you from this list. Inspired as equally by Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon A Time In The West, as it is by Twin Peaks’ David Lynch, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a deftly-executed exercise in filmmaking, drawing on multiple well-trodden genres to create an entirely original and very unique film.
With a Farsi script and an Iranian cast but shot in California, this film is full of standard western features and characters; the dry and dusty oil wells, the “whore with a heart of gold”, the seedy pimp in his Tony Montana-style crime den – and yet it feels like a totally original work. This beautifully sensuous film is intimate in its settings, scenes and sparse storyline, focused more on creating a particular mood and atmosphere than it is with telling a story. Amirpour won great acclaim for this film and her next project, The Bad Batch features the likes of Jim Carrey, Jason Momoa and Keanu Reeves, and is due for release later this year.
Now here’s every Game of Thrones spinoff HBO has coming.
- Lead image: Lionsgate Films