The Western is one of the most consistent genres in film, but they have changed dramatically from the old studio formula of the ’40s and ’50s to the gritty and bleak dramas we’ve watched in recent years.
In honour of the National Day of the Cowboy (25 July), we run through some of the best alternative Westerns of recent years, covering anything from films that turn the typical tropes of the genre on their heads, Westerns set in places other than the American West, or just damn good films from the last ten years or so that we want to shout about.
1. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Possibly the finest Western of modern times, the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece (a phrase you’ll be hearing a number of times in this article) follows Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss on the run as his decision to abscond with a case of money found while wandering the Texan plains begins to catch up with him. Featuring one of the finest villains of modern cinematic history in Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, star turns from Josh Brolin, modern Western stalwart Tommy Lee Jones and Kelly Macdonald, and all played out against some of the best scenery committed to film, this is almost note perfect cinema.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Mad Max?! One of this year’s hottest blockbusters, end to end action superbly shot and directed by franchise visionary George Millar, and the sleeper hit of the summer? A Western? Surely not…
But think about it a little more, and it becomes clearer. Gone are the horse and carts, replaced instead by stupendously modified war machines, and Max is so clearly a rogue, lone-wolf cowboy character the fact that there’s sand everywhere barely even registers.
3. The Road (2009)
Director: John Hillcoat
After what the Coen’s did with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men two years prior, this adaptation of the American author’s most brutal post-apocalyptic tales came highly anticipated. Unfortunately, director John Hillcoat was unable to replicate the cinematic mastery to quite the same level, but what we got was a mighty fine picture nonetheless. Featuring a breakout performance from the young Kodi Smit-McPhee as ‘Boy’, and a strong turn from Viggo Mortensen as ‘Man’, this bleak road movie should definitely be on your watchlist.
4. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
2007 was a bit of a bumper year for Westerns, with talks of a full blown resurgence doing the rounds on a regular basis. It’s easy to see why, with a raft of excellent film-making taking us back to an altogether sandier time. Leading the charge was the cinematic power-coupling of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, a story of entrepreneurial oil baron Daniel Plainview as he becomes ever more obsessed with building his black gold empire. Predictably well acted, Day Lewis took home the gong for best lead actor at that year’s Oscars.
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Director: Andrew Dominik
With a strong cast and even stronger interpersonal stories, this mouthful of a modern Western is quickly garnering praise as a modern classic. Casey Affleck plays a young James gang member who inevitably becomes drawn to and frightened of his mentor (Brad Pitt), so much so that his own delusions of grandeur force him to consider doing the unthinkable.
6. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Director: James Mangold
Hollywood remakes rarely live up to the lofty heights of the originals they are based on, let alone actually improve upon them. But 3:10 To Yuma bucked the trend by usurping its 1957 original source material with fierce performances from both Russel Crowe and Christian Bale, and acute direction from James Mangold. Crowe plays a desperado whose accomplices stage an ambush after he is taken into custody by a determined local sheriff.
7. Slow West (2015)
Director: John Maclean
It’s hard to believe this masterpiece (one of the best films of the year so far) is a directorial debut, but John Maclean – formerly of cult experimental pop outfit The Beta Band – obviously has a natural talent behind the camera. With more than a hint of the Coens about it (although that can really only be a good thing), Slow West is a slow-burning trail across the Mid-West that follows Michael Fassbender’s Silas as he accompanies the young Jay, who is in search of the woman he loves.
8. Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino pumps out yet another classic, and the second stop in his so-called “Alternative History” series (which includes 2009’s Inglorious Basterds and the upcoming Hateful Eight) is as incendiary as ever. It stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and with Tarantino’s trademark ultra-violence and a liberal peppering of swears, this one is well worth the watch.
9. The Homesman (2014)
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
While Tommy Lee Jones is regarded as one of the all time greats of American cinema for his on-screen work, his directorial spoils haven’t garnered the same attention for some reason. Which is mighty strange, considering just how accomplished all of his behind the camera efforts are (two of them make this list!). Jones not only directs the Homesman, but also plays a pretty significant part in it too.
10. The Rover (2014)
Director: David Michôd
Who says Westerns all have to be set in the American west? The Rover takes place in an equally baron Australian outback ten years following the collapse of society, and sees hardened loner Eric (Guy Pearce) as he travels the desolate towns and roads of the outback. Featuring a stellar performance from Robert Pattinson that is sure to shed his Twilight pretty boy image forever more, this gritty drama is a must see.
11. The Proposition (2005)
Director: John Hillcoat
Rural Australia once again for The Proposition, but this time director John Hillcoat takes us back to the 1880s as Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his two brothers are on the run from the law for rape and murder. So far, so morally bleak, and the film only gets more desolate from then on in.
12. Meek’s Cutoff (2011)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
When a wagon train of three families hires mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains, it’s only a matter of time before Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert claiming to know a shortcut. What follows is the emigrants facing the afflictions of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in one another’s instincts for survival in what could be described as a tense Western-survival-horror.
13. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2010)
Directors: Ji-woon Kim, Kim Jee-woon
This tongue-in-cheek film swaps the American West for the Korean peninsula as it falls into the hands of Japanese imperialists. As thousands of Koreans seek refuge in the vast wilderness of Manchuria, a determined thief, a cold-blooded hitman, and a mysterious bounty hunter all vie for an elusive map that could lead them to a buried treasure from the Qing Dynasty. So far, so weird…
14. True Grit (2010)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
This remake of 1969’s John Wayne classic was always going to be compared to the Coens’ previous Western effort, No Country For Old Men. When up against that behemoth of cinema, True Grit pales in comparison. But standing on its own, it’s a phenomenal effort worthy of a place in the Coen pantheon.
15. Dead Man (1995)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmush has been a major player in independent cinema for over 30 years, but back in 1995, he was directing Johnny Depp in this Western black comedy about a city slicker turned gunfighter, on the run with an enigmatic Indian buddy in the Northwest wilderness.
16. Serenity (2005)
Director: Joss Whedon
Possibly the least recognisably ‘Western’ Western on this entire list, Serenity doesn’t appear to share any of the genre’s tropes at first glance, being set as it is in the 26th century on an alien planet. But it’s all in there. Outlaws? Check. Gunslingers? Check. Bar fight? Check. A last stand? Double check.
17. Rango (2011)
Director: Gore Verbinski
The only fully animated film on our alternative Westerns list (there are others, but you won’t find us shouting about Home On The Range any time soon), this was special effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic’s first fully animated feature, and looks absolutely glorious for it. With a star studded cast of voice actors and a more than slightly skewed view on the world, Rango is a unique gem of a film. It also won the Oscar for Best Animated Film, so you know it’s a winner.
18. Appaloosa (2008)
Director: Ed Harris
One of the more traditional Westerns on our list, Appaloosa nonetheless separates itself from the conventional model of the genre with some smart psychology.
19. The Salvation (2015)
Director: Kristian Levring
When he kills the men who killed his wife and son, a Danish ex-soldier (Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen) invokes the determined wrath of a crazed gang leader hell-bent on hunting him down. Featuring plenty of action, the Western genre’s trademark penchant for stunning cinema and some great performances, The Salvation is an exhilarating revenge tale.
20. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006)
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Another from the TLJ stable of directorial efforts, this film features at its core a squabble over burial rights of Melquiades Estrada, hence the movie’s odd title. It also bears the masterful hallmarks of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams).
21. Gerry (2003)
Director: Gus Van Sant
If bleak, desolate landscapes are your thing, look no further than Gus Van Sant’s minimalist classic Gerry. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck go hiking in the desert and, after diverting from the planned route, find themselves lost with quickly dwindling supplies. What follows is a slow paced descent into madness as the two friends must stay confident in their hopes of survival.
22. Fargo (1996)
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Just because nearly every Western on this list so far has been covered in dust and sand, doesn’t mean the snowy Minnesota landscape can’t provide equally as harsh a climate for a story to unfold. One of the best films the Coen Brothers’ canon has to offer, Fargo tells a thrilling crime story.
23. Shanghai Noon (2000)
Director: Tom Dey
Jackie Chan is used to playing the fish out of water, and in this film it’s no different as he takes his high-kicking self-defence skills to the American West in the crowd pleasing family comedy. Who said all modern Westerns had to be gritty metaphorical takes on the moral corruption of man?
24. Bandidas (2006)
Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Too often the traditional Western favoured burly men rescuing damsels in distress, but then what do you expect from a genre which ‘peaked’ around 60 years ago. Thankfully, modern takes on the genre are a lot more forward thinking, including this piece of work dreamt up in the mind of Luc Besson. Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz play two women whose fathers are killed by villain Tyler Jackson. To cripple the villain’s plans, the two vow to rob each of the banks Jackson plans to before he can.
25. Dead Man’s Burden (2013)
Director: Jared Moshe
Dead Man’s Burden is set in 1970 in the aftermath of the Civil War, and follows couple Martha (Clare Bowen) and Heck (David Call) as they seek out a better life in rural New Mexico, only for complications to arise on the return of a family member presumed dead. Filmed entirely on location (something surprisingly rare for a Western film), Dead Man’s Burden marks the directorial debut of Jared Moshe.
26. Sweetgrass (2009)
Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash
Wouldn’t it be great if cowboys were actually real! You what? They are? And this documentary proves it, following shepherds through Montana as they take their flocks on the long trek to the Beartooth Mountains with only a soundtrack as narration. A love-letter to an increasingly rare way of life.
27. Gran Torino (2009)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood made his name in Westerns, so it’s no surprise he had a tough time letting go of the genre with his directorial efforts. Gran Torino relocates the action to a crime-ridden Detroit suburb, but keeps hold of the central lone wolf character as racist Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) who tries to help a neighbour to the right path in life after he catches him trying to steal his prized Gran Torino.
28. Lone Star (1996)
Director: John Sayles
When the skeleton of his murdered predecessor is found, Sheriff Sam Deeds unearths many other long-buried secrets in his Texas border town, in this alt-Western classic which also features an early appearance from Matthew McConaughey.
29. Tears of the Black Tiger (2007)
Director: Wisit Sasanatieng, Wisit Sartsanatieng
One of the most elaborate productions ever mounted in Thailand, Tears of the Black Tiger is a candy-coloured Western made in the high-energy style that characterizes much contemporary Thai cinema. Imagine Blood Dragon, the standalone DLC to 2012’s Far Cry 3, with the Western genre and you’re half way there to imagining a film that almost demands to be seen on worn VHS.
30. Maverick (1994)
Director: Richard Donner
This witty Western follows the exploits of Brett Maverick, who’s more adept at handling a deck of cards than a six-shooter. Maverick needs to raise enough cash to enter a major poker tournament, so he enters a small-town card game and finds himself in trouble when he walks away with the takings.
31. City Slickers (1991)
Director: Ron Underwood
In this comedy, the ‘City Slickers’ of the title decide a change of scenery in the form of a cattle ranching holiday would be the best way to tackle their fears of middle-age. What follows is one of the great underrated comedies that plays on the established tropes of the Western genre from a new angle.
32. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
How could we not mention this one? Most will be familiar with the premise by now (and if not, why not?), and though the third entry is regarded by many as the weakest in the trilogy, that’s a Western if ever we saw one.