10 Great Recent Western Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

Gone are the days when the Western genre once compromised 30% of Hollywood’s output. Back then, in the postwar period until the late 1950s, every actor and their mums surely made at least one cowboy picture. As for now? Audiences are lucky if they get one a year.

What is curious though is that because the genre is seen as such a relic and is not a reliable cash-draw, it means that the people that are making Westerns in the 21st century are doing so for good reason and generally appear to have a clear vision of what they want to do. This means that the overall consistency of the genre’s quality might be stronger now than any decade after the 1960s. Here are ten 21st century examples of the frontier film that slipped under the mainstream radar.


1. The Harder They Fall (2021)

At one time or another, 25% of cowboys were African American. An educated guess would suggest that the amount of Western films that reflect that statistic is miles from achieving a more proportional representation. Jeymes Samuel sought to amend this with his directorial debut in 2021, The Harder They Fall.

The cast came out to play with this one: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo and LaKeith Stanfield all portray a variety of black historical figures who are slung together into a fictional tale of revenge, family, shootouts and comedy – look out for the ‘white town’ gag. That the story never fully feels the need to show the black characters suffering is a hidden strength from the film, allowing the cast to inject their own personality to the characters and give them an identity that is not connected with slavery, something Quentin Tarantino failed to do in Django Unchained.

Samuel directs like a wizard, pulling out numerous stylish tricks from a very, very long cinematic sleeve. There are some shots that are constantly surprising, as if the genre’s lifeline was given a much needed jolt of energy by Samuel’s technical flair. The Harder they Fall is a unique, hip Western that feels like the African American answer to Tombstone.


2. Appaloosa (2008)

Appaloosa (2008)

Having worked together so brilliantly a few years beforehand on A History of Violence, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson (two of the most reliable dudes in Hollywood) reunited for this leisurely-paced story about two lawman who try and clear up the town of Appaloosa when Jeremy Irons’ slimy rancher terrorises it. Renee Zellweger is Allie, the woman who sets herself within a rigid love triangle between Mortenson and Harris’ lawmen. The film’s relationships are slightly distant and there is a coldness to the tone; everyone just has to be grim and bear it.

Ed Harris also directed, wrote and produced this passion project of his, and proves a dab hand. Besides his legendary performance as The Man in Black in Westworld, Harris has not committed to many other Western projects. This is a colossal shame: his crinkled, wearied face looks like it has seen a thousand bar fights and a hundred shootouts, all the while sipping a warming whisky. This makes him in Appaloosa something more to treasure then, alongside Viggo Mortenson’s moustache. There are bursts of action here but nothing is too punchy, and Harris is more fascinated by the inner conflict between men and the extent to which firm morals can be broken.


3. The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are a quartet few would imagine making a film together, let alone a Western about two outlaw brothers and their search for gold. However, French director Jacques Audiard draws out compelling performances from them: Phoenix, maybe playing against the expected role, is the looser, disturbed outlaw brother and Reilly is the slightly focused, more honourable of the two. The screenplay leaks out details about their past until Phoenix’s temperamental condition is given a fairly convincing backstory.

There is a fusion of drama and comedy here that mostly works. The two brothers frequently come across as idiots but the darker story beats of the second half rein in the goofiness. As such, the film’s tonal dichotomy reinforces the opposing mindsets of the brothers. Unfortunately, The Sisters Brothers is an example of ‘come for the performances, and stay for the performances’, as little else will be memorable.


4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

A Coen Brothers film may seem too high profile for a ‘probably have not seen’ list, but this film feels like it has been stuck to people’s Netflix Watchlist since its release, without anyone giving it a go. What a shame then, to miss out on one of the most pleasurable anthology films going.

The film takes its title from one of its six short stories; it stars Tim Blake Nelson as the gunslinging Buster Scruggs and features a wonderful song, some outstanding violence and a cyclical narrative. It is an immensely enjoyable first section that then leads to the other five stories, each of which tackle a classic Western plot: there is a bank robber who keeps getting hanged, a group of people travelling by wagon to seek better prospects in the West, an impresario and his artist touring the towns, a lonely old prospector panning for gold and, most intriguing of them all, a taut stagecoach journey between a bunch of strangers.

This last one, titled ‘The Mortal Remains’ most playfully spins the Western into a nightmare of ambiguity and veiled horror, where intentions and backstories are alluded to but never explicitly stated. It is, along with the title story, the most ‘Coen-esque’ of the lot. Still, for striking vistas and a disgruntled Tom Waits, the prospector story (‘All Gold Canyon’) might be the most purely likeable as it hews away at dialogue and relishes in the tranquillity of nature – a tranquility immediately diluted by the coming of Man.


5. Bone Tomahawk (2015)

There is a death scene in 2015’s Bone Tomahawk of such hideous violence and gore that it overshadows the memory of the entire film. Even the film’s Blu-ray is more of a ‘Black-ray’ due to the dark case, and this sets the nightmarish tone and brewing dread before the film has even started. Leaping from the fairly twisted mine of S. Craig. Zahler, this is The Searchers as a horror, where a troglodyte tribe, so stripped of humanity they may as well be aliens, kidnap several townsfolk.

In not-quite-hot pursuit is Sheriff Franklin Hurt (played with hardened vigour by Kurt Russell, his second Western of 2015 along with The Hateful Eight), his deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a limping Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and a skilled gunfighter called Brooder (Matthew Fox). Chicory deserves a special mention for his steadfast loyalty.

Any production shortcuts to keep its budget at an extremely low $1.8 million are not noticeable: this looks, sounds and feels more mainstream than it should, with Zahler capturing a washed out landscape and the caves of Hell with glee. Extreme violence is teased throughout but, as the posse near the troglodyte home to rescue their friends and loved ones, a dial is turned to 11 and Bone Tomahawk ramps up the tension to sickly levels. Every encounter with a troglodyte is unpredictable. Every character is vulnerable. Every bullet matters.