Great modern westerns by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
No genre is more ubiquitous to Hollywood than the western. Some of the very first films were about cowboys, horses and gunfights. The genre is so old that when the first westerns were being made there were certain parts of the country that were only partially removed from the Old West. Westerns were to audiences then what 90s movies are to us now — fading, but still very clear memories.
Yet, every year there is renewed interest in the western. It’s not a ton of interest, not like other genres, but enough that we’re reminded that the western will never die, even though the original stars — Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, Harry Carey — have been replaced by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, themselves replaced by others.
In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival’s Your Favorite Movies series, here are my favorite westerns of the new millennium. I’m cutting it off at 2000, because before that is filled with all the classics that would clog my list. And because you already know about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch and, my personal favorite, Once Upon a Time in the West. By removing those and sticking to modern films, we can draw attention to the films that are carrying on the great western traditions.
1- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — Andrew Dominik’s gorgeous ode to the west’s greatest outlaw is unlike any western that came before it. Rapturously narrated, photographed in poetic stanzas, and with acting that is devastatingly pure, Jesse James established the myth of the man and then shattered it, only to mythologize once again in its closing heartbreaking chapters.
2- The Proposition — John Hillcoat’s Australian outlaw flick was a stark wake-up about the violent implications of the cowboy way. The bad guys here are very very bad; even the good guys are just varying shades of dark gray. About a lawman who gives a man an ultimatum — bring me your terrible brother or your less terrible brother will hang — The Proposition is relentless in its pursuit of overturning the western stereotypes.
3-Open Range — Kevin Costner is the butt of a lot of jokes, but he has a sensitive eye to the Old West and its historical relevance. In Open Range he focuses on several cowpunchers and their desperate fight with a town’s heavy-handed leader. The film is notable for its realism, with gunfights taking place in agonizing realtime, townspeople who don’t vanish at high noon and relationships that don’t just take place behind swinging saloon doors. Dances With Wolves might be masterpiece, but Open Range is Costner’s smaller study of the west.
4-Meek’s Cutoff — Kelly Reichardt’s sumptuously slow Meek’s Cutoff would never get made in another age. It plods along in plain skirts, bonnets, covered wagons and so little exposition that it’s downright vague. But the film captures a rarely seen aspect of the west: tedious travel and crippling boredom. Strip the action out of a western and you have a film that is meditative and a little terrifying in its stillness.
5-The Homesman — Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman picks up almost in the middle of Meek’s Cutoff, with Hilary Swank escorting three insane women across the frontier, where they will be cared for by what can only be described as “someone else.” The film rattles along at a fair clip, stopping for various episodes in the wild, but then it becomes something so much more when Swank’s homely cowgirl decides she’s had enough. These later passages are so powerful and tragic that they solidify Jones’ name among the western greats.
6-Brokeback Mountain — Forever known as the gay cowboy movie, people often forget that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a loud declaration of the western’s right to be anything it wanted, without all the white hat/black hat cliché. The film made homesexuality, cowboys, stereotypes of the Old West, hate crimes, family values … all of it relevant in a modern context. Step aside from the cultural response to Brokeback Mountain and peer into this film’s open heart and you’ll see that had a lot to say, all of it eloquent.
7-The Good, The Bad, and The Weird -- This and maybe Sukiyaki Western Django are noteworthy examples of the western being appropriated and tweaked by other countries and cultures. Cowboys are a universal idea, an archetype of brazen fearlessness and machoness. We called them cowboys, but in other cultures they were called samurai. Here in The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, they crash the two together in a fiery mess of stylized gunfights, stunts and special effects.
8-Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino’s bloody western acknowledged something very rare in westerns: slavery. Part revenge tale, part rescue mission, but thoroughly a Tarantino picture, Django turned two men — one white and one black — loose to fight their way through the Antebellum South. By recognizing and commenting on America’s terrible shame the film committed itself to western history.
9-True Grit — I’m still a big fan of the original True Grit, but what the Coen Brothers did with their rascally remake is notable for a variety of reasons, and language is one of the big ones. Never before have we heard cowboys talk like they do here, with made-up words, stammering syntax, mumbled gibberish and tobacco drippings. Jeff Bridges is great as Rooster Cogburn, but the real star here is the authentic-sounding dialogue.
10-Appaloosa — Ed Harris’ forgotten cowboy flick does not break tons of new ground for the western genre, which is why I like the movie so much — it’s more of a callback to the way these movies used to be. Lawmen with big guns, cattle barons, outlaws, shootouts, main street confrontations … innovation in the genre can only go so far before it must reach back into the past and borrow from what already works. And there is nothing wrong with that.