10 great films set in Texas

Oil dynasties, cowboys and chainsaw massacres – trip down to Texas with these classic Lone Star state movies. 

Christina Newland

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everything’s bigger in Texas, or so the saying goes. It is, after all, the second largest state in America – and the landscape, the politics, football games, even the food, all follow suit. Maybe that’s why its on-screen representations have often been larger than life, too. TV soap Dallas borrowed from a storied cinema lexicon of oil-family melodrama. Cowpokes from Paul Newman to James Dean have emerged from the arid Texan dust. And there’s a long tradition of Texas as a byword for small-town, homespun Americana – as in the suburban environs of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).

Linklater, born and bred in Houston, has often chosen his home state as the setting for his meandering, lively portraits of adolescence. His youngsters live padded, insular lifestyles – whether they be disaffected college kids in rarified Austin (Slacker, 1991) or stoned high-schoolers (Dazed and Confused, 1993). That sense of localism helps to define Texas – a state with a distinctive cultural heritage and even some history as an independent nation.

Linklater’s latest feature, Everybody Wants Some!!, returns to the Lone Star state through a fictional university in 1980. Featuring an ensemble cast of baseball players and frat boys, it’s a surprisingly warm portrait of dumb and youthful camaraderie. With its prime focus on red-blooded American manhood, it’s a fitting addition to old Texan themes. So, in recognition, here are 10 films featuring the jocks, cattlemen, dissolute heiresses and rednecks who make Texas come alive on screen.

Giant (1956)

Director George Stevens

Giant (1956)

Shot on location in Marfa, Texas, George Stevens’ family epic spans the lives of millionaire cattle rancher ‘Bick’ Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his free-spirited east coast wife Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). The sprawling drama follows the social changes in wealthy Texan society, with a long-running focus on the plight of Mexican-Americans and their racist treatment. Famously, Giant features James Dean’s final on-screen role. He plays poor handyman Jett Rink, who strikes oil in dramatic fashion and soon rivals the Benedicts for their fortune. Dean’s showy method style chafes against the rest of the cast’s more classical mode, but his jerky, resentful performance is probably the most fascinating to watch of the bunch.

The film hasn’t aged wonderfully – why does it take Bick most of his adult life to come to the realisation that he should stand up against racism? Still, it’s well-meaning, and likely true to the Texan mentality of the early 20th century. Given recent suggestions about wall-building, it has more to say about contemporary American race relations than any film from 1956 probably should.

Written on the Wind (1956)

Director Douglas Sirk

Written on the Wind (1956)

Douglas Sirk’s melodrama begins with a yellow convertible speeding dangerously through the Hadley family oil fields, accompanied by acidic Technicolor. Robert Stack is the heir apparent behind the wheel, marinating in whiskey and heading back to his palatial home with murderous intent. Sirk drops the audience into the madness and pulls them back out again, pushing back the clock to show a more sedate time. The Hadleys are a wealthy but troubled oil family who seem to have few of the Benedict family’s qualms about modernity.

As in Giant, the wealthy son brings an urbane brunette wife (Lauren Bacall) back to the ranch, with ensuing difficulty. Her sister-in-law (Dorothy Malone) is a whirling dervish and a notorious local man-eater, madly in love with childhood beau Rock Hudson, who, in turn, pines for Bacall. Amid the love-triangle histrionics, one thing is clear: Texas is tough on outsiders.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Director Howard Hawks

Rio Bravo (1959)

Howard Hawks’s cornerstone of late-period westerns was made when the great director was over 60. It takes place in the archetypal old western town, where law and order are precariously held together by no less a sheriff than John Wayne. After arresting a murderer with relations to a powerful baron, Wayne and his two deputies (Dean Martin and young Ricky Nelson, real-life crooners both) must fight off the legion of hired guns sent to release the criminal. With a flip sense of humour, lyrically clean construction, and a few great songs, it’s a quintessential Hawks film – and an optimistic, direct answer to the downbeat spirit of High Noon (1952). In Rio Bravo, everyone helps the sheriff – it’s a community of good-hearted, down-to-earth Texan folk.

Hud (1963)

Director Martin Ritt

Hud (1963)

Martin Ritt’s contemporary ‘anti-western’ focuses on the slow death of a family cattle ranch and the ensuing power struggle between the father and son who run it. Shot in stark black and white by cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film belongs very much to the era that wrought it. Hud is a thoroughly 60s anti-hero – an unrepentant, womanising bastard with the good fortune to also be Paul Newman.

Principled father Homer (Melvyn Douglas) can’t reconcile the selfish, arrogant nature of his son to his own sense of the world. Hud’s teenage nephew (Brandon De Wilde) is torn between the two opposing poles, admiring Hud’s sidling charm but repelled by his seething amorality. Any hope of redemption vanishes when Hud, in a drunken rage, tries to sexually assault Patricia Neal’s housemaid Alma. Bleak overhead shots frame the eventual round-up and killing of diseased cattle – thus the loss of entire family occupation. Taken alongside the self-regarding Hud, the film offers a mournful vision of the disappearing values of the west.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director Peter Bogdanovich

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Set in a bygone time and a fictional town (‘Anarene, Texas, 1951’), The Last Picture Show is infused with nostalgic Americana and a sense of shattered innocence. It follows high-school buddies (Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges) and local beauty queen (Cybill Shepherd) through the vagaries of first love, sex, and tragedy. Full of what Pauline Kael could only call “flatlands anomie”, it’s a story where everything exists within the realms of the football field, the school dance, and the small-town movie house.

It found enormous critical acclaim and put 31-year-old director Peter Bogdanovich on the map, particularly for his unusual use of black-and-white photography. The gulf between 1951 and 1971 couldn’t have been more pronounced, so the film looks backward at a fast-vanishing America – as if through a rear-view mirror. It’s interesting that, in choosing material to express that sensation, Bogdanovich – a native New Yorker – adapted a novel set in a small corner of Texas.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Director Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

For the plainly traumatic, few viewing experiences rival Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece of low-budget horror. Exploring on a wildly dark underside to America’s heartland, Hooper used road-kill and charred animal corpses to add to the film’s overpowering miasma of death. The film begins with a host of teenagers in a minivan, driving through rural Texas. They’re sunny children of the 70s, reading horoscopes and searching for places to make out. They soon stumble upon a seemingly deserted but picture-postcard house, painted a tidy white and surrounded by well-manicured greenery. Unfortunately for them, the occupants are Leatherface and family.

As third-generation slaughterhouse workers facing unemployment, the cannibals make their money by murdering passers-by and reselling the meat to unassuming roadside diners. What a gruesome joke – and what a way to reimagine the Texan obsession with red meat.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Director Robert Altman

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Robert Altman’s underappreciated drama uses the most American of icons – James Dean – to explore the lives and unrealised aspirations of blue-collar women. Six of them, once members of a Dean fan club, reunite in the mid-1970s, reminiscing and revealing the secrets of their pasts.

Based on a stage play by Ed Graczyk, this is an intimate film, remaining inside a Woolworths for its duration and employing flashbacks to venture further afield. We discover that the store in question is not far from Marfa, Texas, where Dean shot Giant back in 1955. Altman uses Dean’s iconic status and sexual ambiguity as a jumping-off point to explore everything from the suppression of women to the struggles of transsexual men. It’s a film worth seeking out for its strong performances as well as for its interrogation of eccentric small-town life.

Killer Joe (2011)

Director William Friedkin

Killer Joe (2011)

Tucked in a trailer park in the sprawl of modern Dallas, William Friedkin’s southern-fried gothic thriller is as warped as they come. The story (by playwright Tracey Letts) follows a low-down murder scheme involving an insurance policy and an estranged mother. Matthew McConaughey has a brilliant turn as a corrupt city policeman who offers his services as a hitman – his honey-dripping southern accent and gentlemanly manners concealing a brutal nature.

Darkly hilarious and lurid, its grease-smeared descent into ‘poor white trash’ territory recalls the most uneasy sexual excess of the Southern Gothic genre. Caustic neo-noir is just the sort of Texan cinema there should be more of. 

The Tree of Life (2011)

Director Terrence Malick

The Tree of Life (2011)

Some of The Tree of Life takes place in prehistoric times – and some of it in outer space. But in fits and starts, it comes down to earth in the greenery of Waco, Texas in 1956. Loosely based on Terrence Malick’s own childhood, it focuses on a young boy and his brother – adventurous mischief-makers, armed with sticks in the backyard. Their mother (Jessica Chastain) is a gentle, melancholy, restless soul. Their father, played by Brad Pitt, is a ramrod-straight man of firm, stoic temperament.

In capturing the beauty and the confusion of childhood in that era, The Tree of Life also has an odd and otherworldly quality. Armed with the visual effects of whiz Douglas Trumbull, Malick makes galaxies blossom into life. The director has a quiet, unhurried approach to his metaphysical exploration – with every frame touched by a spirituality as profound as Robert Bresson’s.

American Sniper (2014)

Director Clint Eastwood

American Sniper (2014)

If we’re taking a cinematic tour of Texas – one of the largest contributors to US military personnel – it’d be difficult not to mention the runaway hit that was American Sniper. Chris Kyle, the film’s subject, was a four-tour veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a sniper with a staggering list of recorded Al-Qaeda kills. Kyle was born and bred into a deer-hunting, working-class family in Texas, and Bradley Cooper inhabits the role with macho likability.

American Sniper is an ambiguous creature, looking perceptively at PTSD and the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life. It casts a wary eye on widespread gun culture. Perhaps most believable of all is the chummy camaraderie between Chris and his fellow soldiers – right down to its invective about ‘savages’. In some ways, it’s brave of Eastwood to include it in his appraisal of war-time conversation. But the conclusion, which uses real footage of Kyle’s funeral procession, lends itself less to open-ended introspection then it does to dull platitudes about supporting the troops. It’s the kind of agreeable flag-waving which purports to smooth things over between left and right, but by its very essence is upholding the status quo. “This is the greatest country in the world, and I’ll do anything to defend it,” Kyle says. What Eastwood does succeed at – without support or denial – is depicting a peculiarly American mentality.

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