10 great modern westerns

Saddle up for a tour through 10 of the finest westerns to grace our screens in recent times.

Neil Mitchell
Updated:

Slow West (2015)

Slow West (2015)

Close to a quarter of a century ago, Clint Eastwood made his, thus far, final foray into the genre with which he made his name, when he starred in, produced and directed the multiple award-winning Unforgiven. A dark and violent tale, Eastwood’s eulogy to the western genre was high on moral ambiguity and the dispelling of myths about the Old West. In the years since Unforgiven hit our cinema screens, the western has continued to regularly punctuate the theatrical release schedules. It’s a tough job breathing new life into that most well worn of genres, one whose luminaries include such household names as Eastwood, John Ford, John Wayne and Sergio Leone among others. Following in such iconic footsteps, however, hasn’t stopped a number of renowned mainstream, independent and international directors from saddling up and attempting to do just that.

With the release of first time writer-director John Maclean’s Slow West, a British-American co-production already garnering praise in critical quarters, it seems like the perfect time to set our sights on ten of the best modern westerns. Whether they are of the contemporary, classic, neo or revisionist variety, they all prove that the genre still has many new and fascinating trails to follow.

Dead Man (1995)

Director Jim Jarmusch

Dead Man (1995)

Dead Man (1995)

One of American independent cinema’s most accomplished, high profile figures, Jim Jarmusch has been following his own offbeat filmmaking rhythm for over three decades now. Back in 1995 the director took charge of what was then his biggest budgeted project to date, the 19th-century-set Dead Man. With $9 million to play with and a dazzling cast that included Johnny Depp, Crispin Glover, John Hurt and Robert Mitchum in his final role, Jarmusch delivered what is arguably his most narratively broad-ranging film.

Shot, as a number of the director’s films have been, in crisp black and white and backed by a truly beautiful and haunting score by Neil Young, Dead Man was described by Jarmusch as a ‘psychedelic western’. Quoting the poetry of William Blake (with whom Depp’s accountant turned gunslinger shares a name) and with nods to figures from 20th-century pop culture, Jarmusch’s hypnotic, postmodern period piece was also noted for the depth of its research into the nuances that differentiate Native American tribes.

Lone Star (1996)

Director John Sayles

 Lone Star (1996)

Lone Star (1996)

A year after Jarmusch’s Dead Man was released, another of American independent cinema’s leading lights gave us his own particular take on the genre. A neo-western that critiques and updates the conventions and traditions of the genre for the modern world, John Sayles’ Lone Star is a brooding, multi-layered tale that stands as a highpoint in its writer-director’s career. Ostensibly a murder mystery that takes place in two time periods, Lone Star’s far-reaching narrative encompasses the full, troubled social history of the United States.

Set in the fictional Texas-Mexico border town of Frontera, Lone Star’s narrative catalyst is the discovery of the remains of a former Sheriff who went missing in the late 1950s. Individuals, families and official figures from Frontera’s diverse population, made up of Caucasians, Native and African Americans and Mexican immigrants, are drawn into the subsequent investigations. Their differing memories of the past pointedly reflect on how history is never clear-cut and that cultural differences and social tensions are never far from the surface of modern life in America.

Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

Director Wisit Sasanatieng

Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

Despite being the first film from Thailand to be selected for competition at Cannes, in 2001, Wisit Sasanatieng’s larger-than-life western was a flop at the local box office. Further ignominies followed when its American distributor, Miramax Films, first tampered with and then shelved the film until Magnolia Pictures purchased it in 2006. Tears of the Black Tiger’s failure at home and subsequent mishandling overseas do Sasanatieng’s often inspired film a disservice, as its blend of traditional narrative, candy-coloured visual palette and Peckinpah-esque shootouts make it a thoroughly entertaining watch.

A tale of outlaw gunslingers, love across class divides, loyalty, betrayal and tragedy, Sasanatieng’s debut feature is part playful parody and part joyful homage both to the western genre and to Thailand’s homegrown action movies. Told partly in flashback, and with a soundtrack that alternates between Morricone-like strings and Thai pop ballads, this is literally as colourful a western as you’re ever likely to see.

The Missing (2003)

Director Ron Howard

The Missing (2003)

The Missing (2003)

With the possible exception of the Mel Gibson-starring Ransom (1996), The Missing is the grittiest and most violent entry on Ron Howard’s directorial CV. A classic western tale told from a revisionist standpoint, this adaptation of Thomas Eidson’s 1995 novel The Last Ride is a tough and tense thriller with a refreshing set of lead characters. Focusing on the attempts to free women taken into captivity by Native Americans intent on selling them into slavery, The Missing sees Tommy Lee Jones’ shamanistic drifter Samuel Jones, his estranged, hard-nosed daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett) and Jones’ youngest granddaughter Dot (Jenna Boyd) form an unconventional and fractious trio of rescuers.

Familial angst, female subjugation, hostilities between Native Americans and settlers, mysticism and bloody reality rub shoulders in an, at times, problematic depiction of late 19th-century America. Contemporary Native American populations praised the film’s authentic use of Chiricahua, an Apache language the cast were required to master for the film.

The Proposition (2005)

Director John Hillcoat

The Proposition (2005)

The Proposition (2005)

If, other than America, any country’s social history and physical terrain makes it a prime location for a western, then Australia is surely the place. Its colonial past, brutalised indigenous peoples, pioneering settlers and inhospitable landscapes provide filmmakers with a ready-made genre template. Along with recent releases from down under llike Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill (2010) and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road (2013), John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), which unfolds in the outback during the 1880s, exploited this to the hilt.

The uncompromising verisimilitude of Hillcoat’s film, written and co-scored by the director’s frequent collaborator Nick Cave, brings home just how harsh – psychologically and physically – life was at the time. You can practically taste the dust, sweat and blood of this fearsomely violent tale whose excellent cast includes Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Emily Watson and John Hurt, in a particularly memorable cameo role. Hillcoat and Cave conjured up a savage elegy to their modern homeland’s painful birth.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Director Tommy Lee Jones

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

A couple of years after starring in The Missing, Tommy Lee Jones returned to the western genre, this time as both lead actor and first-time director. Three Burials is an intelligent, profound neo-western morality tale, loosely inspired by a real life killing on the American-Mexican border and by William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying.

A film about borders – geographical, class and wealth-based – Three Burials sees Jones’ Texan rancher Pete Perkins take the law into his own hands after the killing of his friend by local border patrolman Mike Norton. In order to fulfil the immigrant’s wishes of being buried in his Mexican homeland, Perkins, his captive Norton and the corpse of Estrada set off on horseback on what becomes a gruelling, existential and at times surreal odyssey. The film deservedly won Jones the best actor award and writer Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) the best screenplay award at the 2005 Cannes film festival.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director Andrew Dominik

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Seven years after New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik launched his career in eye-catching fashion with the frenetic true-crime drama Chopper (2000), he turned his attentions to another nefarious real-world character. The titular killing of notorious outlaw Jesse James at the hands of Robert Ford on April 3 1882 comes towards the climax of Dominik’s epic adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel of the same name. Though both films draw from the wellsprings of fact and myth, they couldn’t be further apart in tone and style.

Whereas Chopper is fast paced, scuzzy and shot through with black comedy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is studied, melancholic and breathtakingly beautiful courtesy of Roger Deakins’ exemplary cinematography. The real star of the film, though, is Casey Affleck, who delivers a mesmerising performance as the star-struck, ingratiating Ford, a somewhat pathetic figure who eventually turns his gun on his idol.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

No Country for Old Men (2007)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The neo-western – a sub-genre that adheres to thematic traditions but takes place in contemporary settings — has proved particularly fruitful territory for a number of filmmakers. John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) are all impressive examples of the neo-western, and the Coen BrothersNo Country for Old Men (2007) is the finest recent addition to the category.

Lean and muscular, the Coens’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name garnered four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The elegantly sparse plot revolves around the theft of millions of dollars worth of money from the aftermath of a drug deal gone catastrophically belly-up near the American-Mexican border in Texas. While Tommy Lee Jones’ philosophical Sheriff Ed Bell and Josh Brolin’s bold chancer Llewelyn Moss are engaging characters, Javier Bardem’s enigmatic, bizarre hit man Anton Chigurh achieved instant icon status.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Director Kelly Reichardt

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

One of few female directors to have tackled a western, Kelly Reichardt imposed her distinctive style on the genre with Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt’s preoccupation with marginalised figures searching for better lives and for telling their stories at a contemplative pace continued with this tale of a small group of settlers and their increasingly perilous journey across the Oregon High Desert.

Loosely based on a real-life incident along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, three settler families and their guide, the charismatic Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), end up lost and running low on food and water. What should have been a two-week journey turns into a desperate five-week survival mission, leading to a shift in the power dynamics within the group. Sparse and alienating, Meek’s Cutoff is a fittingly arduous experience for the viewer that reflects the barren landscape and psychological travails experienced by those crossing it.

Django Unchained (2012)

Director Quentin Tarantino

Visceral, referential and confrontational are words that can be applied to the majority of Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre, and Django Unchained is no exception. As is always the case with this highly divisive director, Tarantino’s first foray into the genre (specifically the spaghetti western) is stylized to the nth degree. Like many of the more successful and/or intriguing modern westerns, Tarantino’s idiosyncrasies were brought to bear on the genre, rather than the director being beholden to its thematic traditions and narrative conventions.

Inspired by the likes of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) as well as the 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s novel Mandingo (Richard Fleischer), Django Unchained tackles the shameful history of slavery in the Deep South during the antebellum era. Rather than trivialising its issues, Django Unchained brought them right back into the mind of the public consciousness in a lurid, ferocious way that was impossible to ignore.

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