Eight Great Westerns from the New Millennium

Rumors of the Western’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. For many, many years, prognosticators and studios have been seemingly eager to put that final nail in the Western coffin, and yet, it returns. Look no further to December of this year, where you will find Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, QT’s second Western in three years. Prior to that, Kurt Russell will star in another Western, Bone Tomahawk, out in October. Russell is trying to get the most he can out of that epic cowboy mustache.

Earlier in 2015, Michael Fassbender starred in Slow West, a meditative, quiet Western many liked (although I did not particularly enjoy). My point is here, the Western is not dead, it’s just kinda dormant. Kinda. There have been a great number of Westerns since the turn of the new millennium, and here are eight must-see genre entries since 2000…

Django Unchained

8) Django Unchained (2012)  – While I didn’t particularly enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-revenge Western as much as his other films, even minor Tarantino is better than most. Django Unchained is, much like his fictional spin on World War II Inglourious Basterds, an opportunity for an oppressed people to get revenge on their oppressor via re-written history. In this case, enslaved African-Americans are represented by Jaime Foxx’s eccentric gunslinger Django. While it is entertaining and often beautiful, steeped in Tarantino’s insightful dialogue, the film does grind its gears from time to time. But, again, I’ll take lesser QT over many directors’ best work any day.

Meek's Cutoff

7) Meek’s Cutoff (2010) – Meek’s Cutoff works like a silent film, and it could be that just as easily as it added the sparse dialogue. Kelly Reichardt’s film is a true Western, a story of the taxing and deadly journey West, and the pitfalls lying in front of a group of pioneer men and women. Michelle Williams stars, along with a bearded Bruce Greenwood and Paul Dano, but the real star here is the harsh landscape. These open plains look like a cakewalk in 2015, but in 1845 this Oregon Trail was a deadly, arduous journey for many. “You Have Died of Dysentery.”

Open Range

6) Open Range (2003) – Kevin Costner’s career has been wildly inconsistent, but in the midst of drivel like Dragonfly and Rumor Has It…, Costner returned to his comfort zone to direct Open Range. The result is one of the more overlooked, underrated Westerns in recent memory. Costner and the invaluable cowboy actor Robert Duvall star as a pair of cattlemen who buck up against a corrupt lawman. Open Range is a film about honor and code, and it is a patient directorial effort from Costner, who appreciates the aesthetic serenity of the open plains. Violence is minimal here, only when it’s necessary in one of the more incredibly choreographed gunfights in all of Western cinema.

True Grit

5) True Grit (2010) – As much as John Wayne’s original is celebrated, Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake, starring Jeff Bridges in the Rooster Cogburn role, adds much-needed life and vigor to the proceedings. Let’s be honest, the original True Grit was little more than a vehicle to get Wayne his Oscar; overall, the film was less than memorable. Bridges is slovenly genius, and the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities sync up with the idiosyncratic dialogue in Charles Portis’s quirky novel. And let’s not forget, Hailee Steinfeld’s precocious young Mattie Ross, the catalyst of the entire story, is a dynamite character.

3:10 to Yuma

4) 3:10 to Yuma (2007) – Another remake improving on the original, James Mangold’s story of a desperate family man (Christian Bale) charged with transporting a notorious outlaw (Russell Crowe) to an outbound train, is a tense chase film from top to bottom. Bale and Crowe are electric opposing one another, an Ben Foster adds his typical manic instability as Crowe’s henchman. 3:10 to Yuma is a Western wound tight, filled to the brim with bravado and desperation.

The Assassination of Jesse James

3) The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007) – This is where the field separates into not only a list of the best Westerns of this new millennium, but some of the best overall films of the last fifteen years. Andrew Dominik’s deliberate, moody tone poem is more a meditation on the Western than a traditional six-shooters-and-saddles story. Brad Pitt captures the mythic notes of Jesse James, and Oscar nominee Casey Affleck is pitch perfect as the insecure Robert Ford. Add to this the haunting soundtrack from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and the film elevates beyond genre into a tale of longing, wonder, and the dying ways of the Old West.

The Proposition

2) The Proposition (2005) – John Hillcoat’s Australian Western is unforgivingly violent, nihilistic, and altogether a captivating experience. Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, one of a trio of outlaw brothers. He is captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a lawman charged with cleaning up the lawless Outback. He offers Burns an opportunity: kill his psychotic older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston, evocative), or see his younger, simple-minded brother hanged. The setup is brilliant, and the unfolding compelling and often brutal. Hillcoat captures the stunning beauty of Australian, the stark desolation of an Outback without rules, the madness in men, and the physical and mental toll violence can take on humanity.

There Will Be Blood

1) There Will Be Blood (2007) – This may be a bit of cheating, as There Will Be Blood is in no way a traditional Western. There are few horses, no gunfights, and no clear heroes and villains. That being said, Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film is still a signal, taking the Old West out and bringing in the new industrialization of the country. Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent, hypnotically intense as the obsessive oilman Daniel Plainview. As Plainview squares off against Eli Sunday, a religious charlatan, tension grows almost unbearably, and madness consumes everyone in their orbit. Anderson’s film is a battle of wills, a fight between religion and capitalism, and an examination of what lies in the darkest corners of men’s hearts.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.