Liam Hemsworth and Woody Harrelson will face off in The Duel on June 24, thus bringing the classic western genre to a new generation of moviegoers. Thankfully, this breed of film has been alive and well since The Great Train Robbery hit theaters in 1903. It is difficult to pin down the exact number that have been made since, but who cares? As long as the shootouts are good, the menfolk are rugged, and the women have moxie, we’re up for anything.
When selecting the 15 Best Westerns of the 21st Century, our Venn diagram included films set in or close to the classic Wild West era as well as films that successfully played in classic tropes while perhaps adding something new and relevant to today’s audiences. There had to be an intersection there. That’s why you won’t find films such as No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, All the Pretty Horses, and Serenity on this list, even though you could make a strong case for their western pedigree.
Also, you will notice a few of these films incorporate elements of other genres (survival, horror, etc.), while playing within the time period. That said, it’s time to saddle up and ride through the last 15-or-so years of western movie history.
15. Slow West
With nerd glasses and an MA from the Royal College of Art in London, John Maclean doesn’t look like the type of person who could write and direct one of the best westerns of the 21st Century. But looks can be deceiving, and after a slow start, this True Grit-like film accelerates to an explosive and fun finale.
At its heart are the performances of Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and Michael Fassbender and Kodi-Smit McPhee, two of the mutants stars of X-Men: Apocalypse. The story centers on a 16-year-old boy (McPhee), who travels across the frontier of 19th Century America looking for the woman he loves. He is taken in by an outlaw guide (Fassbender), and the two form a bond as they race to save the girl and her father from a team of trigger-happy bounty hunters. Plot-wise, it is pretty standard fare, but Maclean’s script has just the right balance of laughs and gritty suspense to make this one journey into the badlands one worth taking.
14. The Homesman
Modern westerns are less idealistic and more realistic. As a resul,t the proceedings aren’t always happy affairs, and such is the case with The Homesman. Director and co-writer Tommy Lee Jones stars opposite Hilary Swank in a film that has been called a “feminist western” by Variety. Jones does not shy away from that label, and it shows in how he centers his film more on Swank than himself.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is an independent spinster who agrees to transport three crazy women out of the frontier life that drove them there. Their journey will be a dangerous one and requires them to travel cross-country. Enter George Briggs (Jones), a low-life drifter who agrees to accompany them on the journey. The story goes to an unusual place with the Briggs-Cuddy dynamic, and it leads to a rather heartbreaking conclusion. What we like about The Homesman is that it isn’t your typical western film of bad guys and good guys and climactic shootouts. It’s more about the people, the terrain, and the time period, and it’s very honest in how it portrays all of those things.
13. Dead Birds
Some will take issue with this selection (as well as another on our list), but we assure you that Dead Birds is more than just an effective horror chiller about demons and hauntings. It’s also a harsh and unforgiving western that effectively weaves genres at its discretion. The cast is led by Henry Thomas (E.T., The Last Ride), who heads a gang of Confederate soldiers-turned-bank robbers that find themselves marooned at an abandoned slave plantation upon escape.
Director Alex Turner (Red Sands, Disposal) milks the suspense scenes for every last drop, but he and his crew also do an excellent job of location scouting, costuming, and presenting an overall picture of what that time period was like. Also, for those of you who like spotting “before they were famous” stars in somewhat low-budget horror, keep your eyes peeled for Michael Shannon and Isaiah Washington while you’re at it.
12. The Burrowers
Pioneering was pretty tough in the first 100 years of American life. A family in The Burrowers finds that out the hard way along with the search party sent to rescue them. The posse comes prepared to tangle with hostile native tribes, only to discover something much deadlier waits for them under the surface of the harsh western terrain.
At $7 million, The Burrowers is considered low budget fare, but you couldn’t tell from what writer-director J.T. Petty is able to pull off with his cast and crew. One of few recognizable names on the cast list is Clancy Brown (Netflix’s Daredevil, The Highlander), and he isn’t given a lot to do. Luckily, the rest of the cast hits their notes with a workmanlike efficiency. One half The Searchers and another half Tremors, The Burrowers is now something of a cult movie. The film’s marketed more as a horror flick, but western fans will appreciate the settings and atmosphere. It’s a hard film to pin down in what exactly it’s supposed to be, and the balance isn’t always one point; however, it hits more often than it misses and is a whole lot of fun.
11. The Missing
Fans of director Ron Howard didn’t think of him in the western genre prior to 2003’s The Missing, though they probably shouldn’t have been surprised when he decided to finally make one. Had they known actor Ron Howard and his deeply effective performance opposite John Wayne in The Duke’s final film, The Shootist, they wouldn’t have questioned him at all. In addition to working with Wayne, that role allowed him to learn from master director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry).
Howard’s The Missing unites all-world actors Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett as an estranged father and daughter who must work together to rescue Blanchett’s daughter after she is kidnapped by an Apache sorcerer. Sounds strange, yes, but it works well in the context of the film. And thanks to Howard’s impeccable pacing abilities — see Ransom for another example — you’re never bored with the material. This one also stars Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, and Val Kilmer.
James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard) has an interesting past to say the least. At one time he marauded as the outlaw Butch Cassidy. Now in Bolivia with fewer birthdays ahead of him than behind, he longs for one last look at home and joins up with a young bandit to make that dream a reality. Along the way they find themselves askew of both sides of the law, building to a compelling and poignant finale.
The dynamic between Blackthorn and his traveling companion is as natural as it is unlikely. These are two men from very different worlds, yet they share an outlaw mindset that makes their kinship believable. In the hands of director Mateo Gil (writer of Vanilla Sky, The Sea Inside, and Open Your Eyes), the film makes the switches from loud epic western to quiet camaraderie between its stars with ease. As Shepard’s foil, Eduardo Noriega is terrific here. And Stephen Rea provides a surprising amount of menace given his quieter and more even-keeled roles.
9. The Proposition
Who knew Nick Cave of alternative rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds could write for films? Until The Proposition assaulted movie audiences in 2005, probably no one. Oh sure, there was that little-heard-of film Ghosts … of the Civil Dead he co-wrote in 1988, but this was the first time we got a taste of the man’s narrative abilities unadulterated by youth and a collaborator. Even better, the finished product had a budget and some stars behind it in Ray Winstone and Guy Pearce. While the film didn’t get a wide release here in the States, it did well on home video and continues to be a shining example of the genre’s potential even in our modern age.
The film’s namesake comes from a sadistic offer that a “lawman” makes to an apprehended criminal — kill your older brother in nine days or we’ll kill your younger one for you. Faced with an awful choice, he sets out to do the deed, and that’s when things get interesting. Unlike most westerns, this one takes place in Australia, but it very much belongs in this grouping.
The adventures of Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch from Robert B. Parker’s series of novels kicked off with 2005’s Appaloosa, so it was only fitting the films would do the same. Unfortunately, this one dropped in theaters during a lull in western interest, so its performance wasn’t much of a franchise starter. The film grossed $27 million worldwide on a budget of $20 million, putting future outings in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, it’s good storytelling and the direction of star Ed Harris is competent enough, if not particularly groundbreaking. What Harris did do well was to cast himself in the part of Cole and Viggo Mortensen as his partner-in-crime (or law rather), Hitch. The two men belong in these particular sets of chaps, and they are helped along by a strong female lead (Renee Zellweger) as well as an interesting villain (Jeremy Irons).
If anyone else does care to take up this series — fingers crossed — there is ample material left to choose from on the book side. Parker left us Resolution, Brimstone, and Blue-Eyed Devil before his death. Since then, Robert Knott has ably taken up the characters with Ironhorse, Bull River, The Bridge, and Blackjack.
7. Open Range
Open Range suffers a bit for its long-winded denouement. But if you separate that final 15 to 20 minutes from the film and end it after the climactic gun battle, you have a close-to-perfect western. Based on Lauran Paine’s novel The Open Range Men, this 2003 feature teams Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall in a tense western narrative that pits them against a shady lawman.
The novel was written in the latter half of Paine’s career (around 1990), but it’s as relevant in today’s age of privacy concerns as it was then, perhaps more so. Costner and Duvall are a couple of men fighting more than just a crooked maniac with a badge, they’re fighting for a livelihood. When that fight turns into a hail of bullets in the film’s finale, it’s as accurately portrayed as anything you’ll see on film, with a ton of confusion and missed shots in place of the standard Hollywood-ized predictability. Costner, who also directed this western, adds tension by gunning for realism here, and it certainly sticks with you.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
No sense in SPOILER ALERTING this one. It gives everything away in the title. Of course, you probably knew what was going to happen anyway if you’ve made the most basic studies of Wild West history. Even so, director Andrew Dominik manages to keep us watching not based on any sense of what-will-happen-next, but rather through building our fascination in seeing how the events will unfold before, during, and after the titular action takes place. Credit Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Jesse James and Casey Affleck’s of Robert Ford for keeping our eyes glued to the screen.
As for the production, it’s a beautiful thing to look at thanks to painstaking recreations of the era. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a bit of an outlier here because of how troubled it was. Dominik’s original version did not meet with the studio’s liking. Over the two years it took to bring it to theaters after filming had wrapped, there were a few different versions, with one running more than three hours in length. The final product was close to 2 hours, 39 minutes, and it was well worth the wait.
5. 3:10 to Yuma
This remake of the classic 1957 film of the same name takes on a more somber tone, but does a terrific job of building the suspense from beginning to end. Overall, the two flicks are nice companion pieces. In the 2007 version, the leads are brought to life by Hollywood heavyweights Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Bale’s Dan Evans, like his predecessor, is a desperate rancher who agrees to take on the dangerous job of transporting a ruthless criminal to catch a prison train while the bandit’s murderous colleagues lay in wait.
Bale and Crowe have strong chemistry together, balancing pride and sense of duty with a growing respect that pays off in the film’s final moments. As good as they are, however, the film would be a shade of itself if not for the under-appreciated Ben Foster turning in an unforgettable performance as Charlie Prince, Crowe’s right-hand man. To say Prince is loyal to Crowe’s Ben Wade would be the epitome of understatement. That loyalty borders on creepy at times, and ultimately proves to be his undoing — but not before a jolting finish.
4. True Grit
How do you possibly replace The Duke in a remake of his most famous role? Start by getting the right people behind the camera. In this case, those people were Joel and Ethan Coen. From there, they tapped Jeff Bridges to take over the eye patch of the legendary Rooster Cogburn. The rest is history.
True Grit (2010) also gave us the debut of Hailee Steinfeld in the role of Mattie Ross, and she’s phenomenal here. We suppose Matt Damon and Josh Brolin deserve props as well, but at day’s end, it’s the Coen Brothers’ superb ability to cast secondary characters around the star formerly known as “The Dude,” build a unique sense of place, and stay true to the source material that make the film an improvement from the original. It really is “written” in the language of the novel by Charles Portis (who wrote the book upon which both films are based), and you’ll understand that if you pick up a copy and give it a read-through.
3. The Revenant
Michael Punke’s acclaimed novel of survival was brought to the screen by Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass. While the true story is probably more amazing than what happens in the film, the Oscar-winning director does a terrific job with his terrain and pivotal moments. The standout scene, of course, is the bear attack. (And no, the bear does not rape Leo.) Glass’s desire for revenge was understandable enough without the fictitious murdered son thrown in for good measure. Even so, it works if you can divorce yourself from historical accuracy and accept it as the fictionalized account it is.
Tom Hardy does a fine job as the villainous Fitzgerald, but the character is written a little too one-dimensionally. Nevertheless, the boundaries Glass must push through in order to attain his revenge sets up a number of unforgettable moments.
2. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino has made better films than this controversial Academy Award winner, but most of those exist outside the western genre. When stacked against the spate of post-2000 westerns, few measure up, including his a-little-too-in-love-with-itself latest, The Hateful Eight. Shades of that overindulgence worked their way into Django, with a running time that was about 20 minutes too long.
Even so, there are so many things to love about this film that it unquestionably deserves a top spot on this list. The dastardly slave owner DiCaprio, the virtuous Christoph Waltz (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this role), and Django himself, Jamie Foxx — combine with QT’s penchant for excesses to deliver an entertaining revenge epic that gives audiences their money’s worth. The only thing we’d really change about it: end the film with the bloody plantation home shootout (one of the finest gun fights in cinematic history) and lop off most everything else. Samuel L. Jackson was already enough of a bad guy that we didn’t need his solo run in the home stretch.
1. Bone Tomahawk
Writer-director S. Craig Zahler didn’t have the budget of The Revenant or The Hateful Eight, but he managed to make a better film than both in the same year without getting anywhere near the recognition. Bone Tomahawk, adapted from Zahler’s novel, does a masterful job with its sub-$2 million budget, attracting a cast that includes Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, and David Arquette while giving us some of the nastiest villains to ever move in front of a camera.
The film is methodical in its pacing with a slow, tense search party reminiscent of The Searchers. (Russell makes an ideal John Wayne-type, even more so than Bridges in True Grit). Zahler’s script goes to some really agonizing places, but it also delivers poignant characterization and dialogue in a film that sometimes crosses over into horror movie territory. It’s a weird mashup of ideas really, and explaining why it works doesn’t do the film as much justice as simply sitting down to watch it unfold. The ending is simultaneously exciting, brutal, and touching. It’s a truly marvelous film that, for us, is not only one of the best westerns of this century, but one of the best of all time.
Okay, it’s your turn to draw, pardners. How much of our best westerns list do you agree with? How much are you ready to shoot holes in? Fire away in the comments section!
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