5. Walker (1987)
After “Repo Man” and “Sid and Nancy”, Alex Cox has become an acclaimed director. It seemed like he was on the verge of becoming a bigger filmmaker, with studios offering him bigger projects. Everything turned upside down when “Walker” got released. The studio and many critics expected a factual biopic instead they got a surreal, brutal and totally wild movie. The story follows William Walker (Ed Harris) who was actually commissioned by industrial heavyweight Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) in the mid-19th century to put an end to the civil war in Nicaragua.
Under the guise of a traditional biopic, we get a garish, sometimes deliberately exaggeratedly brutal and often satiric approach to the material which feels courageous in many ways. Western is a genre that usually sticks to traditions but with Cox’s vision, you don’t know what will you get and what’s exciting about the entire film is that Cox doesn’t particularly what audience will think. He’s working on almost experimental level here, delivering a very peculiar and social-minded experience. Ed Harris is also sensational in the leading role. The film certainly deserves re-appreciation after all these decades. Cox himself thinks it’s probably his best film.
4. Open Range (2004)
No wonder Kevin Costner got huge success with “Yellowstone” once again because the actor who’s been applauded for his performance there doesn’t fit any genre more than the Western. Most of his best performances are either western films or at least have strong western influences. He doesn’t just star in “Open Range” but also direct it where you can see the passion he has for the genre. The plot is something of a traditional classic western kind but it doesn’t matter much because there’s so much feeling in the plot that it doesn’t feel clichéd. Costner uses the material to reflect on the decline of traditions and values, as well as questioning all the trauma wars and violence leaves.
It’s a traditional western with a fresh spin, especially becomes effective because of gorgeous cinematography, some truly excellent shootout moments and a brilliant supporting performance by Robert Duvall. In fact, it’s been said that Costner didn’t want to make the movie if Duvall won’t agree to do it. Luckily, he agreed to star in. The result is spectaculars and makes one excited for the upcoming Costner western.
3. Let Him Go (2020)
On the topic, here’s more of a modern, “neo-western” with Kevin Costner and even much better Diane Lane who deserved some award recognition for her performance here. The story sets in Montana, 1961, retired sheriff George lives on a ranch with his wife Margaret, their son James, his wife and son. One day James dies in an accident. His widow marries with a dangerous man and things get out of control.
Since it’s hard for an adult-oriented film to do much box office these days, not so surprisingly “Let Him Go” flopped as well. Very unfortunate because it’s very effective in so many ways. Even if you find the storyline predicable in some ways, the film still finds way to surprise. One of the reasons is because its direction is very strong and so are the acting. That’s how the dinner scene in the movie feels particularly full of tension. Dramatic moments also gives you the right emotions because the film feels honest, it feels like it’s coming from the cast and crew who has a strong feeling in the material. That’s why it works so well.
2. The Grey Fox (1982)
When old “fox” Bill Miner is released from prison after 33 years, a lot has changed in the world. It’s 1901, a new century now! He doesn’t know what to do until he watches “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and is inspired to copy it in real life. Based on a real-life story of Bill Miner, an American stagecoach robber who staged his first Canadian train robbery on 10 September 1904. We remember Richard Farnsworth mostly as an old man, not only because he’s best known to cinephiles for his brilliant performance in “The Straight Story” but also because he spent his youth being a stuntman. Finally he switched to acting. Here he is in one of his best, most compelling performances.
The funny thing is the movie becomes more interesting when we realize we don’t know watch your average western. In terms of atmosphere, “The Grey Fox” easily overcomes the barriers or the clichés of its genre and brings a very unique mixture of tragedy, humor and pistol shots. In addition to classic Western elements, the film also works as a relationship drama, a crime comedy and character study at the same time. While there are a lot to praise, Farnsworth’s brilliant performance is what balances everything so amazingly.
1. The Homesman (2014)
We come back to Tommy Lee Jones again who directed his arguably best film here. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival but didn’t win anything unfortunately. Its box office results were less than stellar also which is a shame. This was one of the best films of its year on so many levels. The film is about a 31 year old independent woman (portrayed by Hilary Swank) who takes up the challenge of bringing three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life across the Nebraska with the help of a drifter left for dead (Jones).
It’s somewhat of a dark film but nothing depressing, because it’s also very emotional and soulful. There are influences from everywhere, from Ford to spaghetti westerns to those who has put fresh spin on the genre in the last few decades and it all works great together. Lots of wonderful actors have minor appearances but it’s ultimately Jones/Swank show. Both of them deliver some great work and it’s great to watch them together. The movie is also thematically rich, exploring things like gender issues and changing conventions on the frontier and is also atmospherically engaging. In the end, it’s a revisionist Western that defies expectations at every turn. There’s a lot to love here and deserves its name to come up more often among the best modern westerns.