Looking at the ten films featured on this list, one can identify two distinct patterns regarding what’s happened to the western in the last fifteen years. The first is that westerns have become louder, pushing the genre’s exhilarating gunplay to explosive extremes in order to keep up with the modern day blockbuster. The second is that westerns have become quieter, distilling the genre’s pensive stillness to a hypnotically pure form as the one-time flagship Hollywood genre takes shelter in the arthouse.
This division seems indicative of the currently unsettled state of the genre. With its frequent championing of traditionalism and its often heavily whitewashed historical narratives, the western has long been at risk of becoming left behind by social progress and this has forced the genre to adapt in some exciting ways.
The films on this list serve as enjoyable examples of the various mutations the western has taken on this century. While some of these works attempt to deconstruct or clear away the habits of the old films to make room for something new, others actively embrace the tropes and artificiality of the genre. Interestingly, most if not all of the films you’ll see below are overtly referential to the western’s heyday, either scrutinising or paying homage to the classics and their masterly (mis)representations of the past.
With all this shifting, it can be difficult to define exactly what these days should fall under the ‘western’ category. Films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, for instance, certainly borrow elements from the western but simply don’t seem to embody the spirit of the genre enough to qualify for the list. Arbitrary? Perhaps but the films that do make it on here are more than sufficient in showing that the western still has some hard-bitten life in it.
10. Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)
Made with rare affection and understanding for that which came before it, Rango is a Sergio Leone homage with significantly more substance and sincerity than your average family friendly throwback.
The jury may still be out on Gore Verbinski’s career as a whole and his relationship with Johnny Depp may in the long run turn out to be almost as toxic as that of Depp and Tim Burton but the director’s one animated feature displays a creative effort and open-mindedness that we can only hope he brings back for future projects.
Rango quickly distinguishes itself with its confidently nonchalant pacing and incidental sense of storytelling. It’s an offbeat, comedic, almost solipsistic adventure that tellingly has its titular soul-searching lead go nameless for the first twenty minutes.
The script’s meta-cinematic framing should’ve been a cheap gimmick but Verbinski ties this self-awareness to his hallucinogenic visuals and lone wanderer mysticism in a way that skilfully enhances Rango’s arc of self-realisation (“No man can walk out of his own story”).
The film isn’t always so inspired, occasionally succumbing to narrative clichés and by-the-numbers set pieces, but, at its best (namely the first third), this is one of the funniest, smartest animated films of recent years, with a visual wit that Verbinski hasn’t matched before or since.
9. Open Range (Kevin Costner, 2003)
A charmingly nostalgic, misty-eyed depiction of the west, Kevin Costner’s Open Range may well have the best final shootout of this whole list but its long, inventively paced finale is hardly the mode for the picture as a whole. For the film’s first hundred minutes, Kevin Costner seems primarily awed by the sheer splendour of the old country – or at least John Ford, Howard Hawks and Fred Zinnemann’s version of it.
Michael Kamen’s swooning score and the delightful chemistry between Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Benning set the reverent tone of the film. In its chronicling of two cattlemen wandering the land to escape past traumas, Costner isn’t hoping to expose any gritty, violent truth of this younger America but pay tribute to its perseverant heroes.
Yes, Kevin Costner has a reputation these days for being boring and overly safe, both as an actor and a director, but Open Range sees him working in traditionalist territory that suits his approach handsomely. He’s not a boundary-pusher, a provocateur or an arthouse visionary. He’s just a dedicated craftsman who wanted to tell a simple, old-fashioned story of tough, hardworking old men with psychological loads to bear and demanding challenges ahead. If that sounds boring to you, just remember that not even John Ford liked to think of himself as an artist.
8. 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007)
Stylistically, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma is almost certainly the least interesting entry on this list. Aside from the odd slide guitar on the soundtrack, there’s very little in this film’s presentation to suggest that the director knows what genre he’s working in, largely falling back on the blandest clichés of 21st century Hollywood.
But (and this is a big ‘but’), while Mangold may not be the most distinctive or daring of visualists, he sure knows how to direct his actors, with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe showing particular skill in extracting the meatiest content from the taut script. Every time the film pits its characters against each other in bouts of dialogue, the old themes of masculinity, honour, success and mythmaking are given fresh emotional heft.
When Bale’s Civil War veteran-turned-rancher Dan Evans agrees to help the cruel, self-righteous, hypocritical authorities escort Crowe’s murderous outlaw Ben Wade to prison, he finds himself stepping into treacherous moral and physical ground.
Dan seems to want Ben behind bars not specifically because of the individual’s appalling actions but because of the symbol of underhanded achievement that he serves as. The fight to put Ben Wade away is an uphill struggle against cynicism from a man who has found neither success nor respect in trying to make an honest living.
As the human cost increases for Dan and his society-spanning assortment of colleagues, an intriguing central paradox emerges as Dan’s proud need to score a victory against injustice requires him to make peace with the oppressive injustices of the state. With each new revelation, the film’s ethical territory becomes increasingly murkier, building up to a climax that leaves an impression far beyond that which the roof-hopping gunplay would suggest.
7. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
Hazily directed by John Hillcoat and written with characteristic gloom by Nick Cave, Australian outback drama The Proposition is the western as murder ballad or existential horror film.
When Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley offers to let outlaw Charlie (Guy Pearce) and his vulnerable younger brother off the hook on the condition that Charlie kills his notorious older brother, the film looks to be establishing Captain Stanley as a clear cut villain. This familiar dynamic, however, is quickly subverted.
Whereas Pearce’s divided criminal isn’t on screen quite as much as you’d think, Cave’s choice to select Stanley as his unlikely central character allows Stanley to be the film’s most vulnerable, sympathetic individual, thanks in part to Winstone’s powerful performance in a film that doesn’t want for great turns.
Throughout the film, there are two sides to every story and a grain of honour in every motivation but there is also rampant cruelty. Captain Stanley resorts to unpleasant and dubious measures in his work because he is trying to tame a land he doesn’t yet understand. He’s a fascinating and strangely sympathetic character that keeps us emotionally involved in the film’s nihilistic reality.
Yet the film’s real focus is its rampantly violent setting. Authorities and outlaws prove equally bloodthirsty. Characters drop like flies while real flies encroach mockingly on every scene. There are a few small personal victories here and there but in a land characterised by such universally pointless bloodshed, the very best anyone can hope for is the illusion of civilisation.
6. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-woon, 2008)
Viewing ‘the west’ as a concept of genre rather than geography, this Korean action-adventure-comedy offers a more complete and satisfying sense of this particular landscape than perhaps any other film from this century. The Good, the Bad, the Weird feels wide open, portraying the west (which in this specific case means ‘1930s Manchuria’) as one large battleground given depth and colour by the region’s own history and identity.
Leading South Korean actor Song Kang-ho (if you’ve seen three Korean films, you’ve probably seen him in something) never fails to entertain, here doing justice to the ‘Weird’ part of the film’s title, but it’s Tale of Two Sisters director Kim Jee-woon who really dominates the show.
Employing agile tracking shots and a crisp colour palette, this is that frustratingly rare ‘popcorn flick’ not to use that classification as an excuse for rudimentary direction. The few miscalculations in the film’s story are easily overlooked in the face of the films rich sets and rousing set pieces, which meld physical comedy with darker and stranger forms of humour.
Unrestricted by wider franchise obligations or age ratings and directed by someone who actually cares about their craft, The Good, the Bad, the Weird serves as a stirring challenge to the white bread landscape of current Hollywood blockbusters simply by virtue of how good it is.