Recently, I wrote some articles revolving around the Old West and how to recreate some iconic John Wayne or Clint Eastwood outfits in Red Dead Online. In these, I note how my love for Rockstar’s Wild West franchise ultimately stems from my exposure to the Western film genre from a young age. But having already taken a look at some iconic films from yesteryear through these articles, I thought I’d take a deeper look at the 5 best Western films released since 2000.
The genre really fell off in popularity throughout the 1980s, with some even referring to Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar-winning film, Unforgiven, as the movie that ended the genre. While this is certainly a phenomenal picture and the decline of the genre is hard to argue with, there have been some great Westerns in recent years, even if they are few and far between.
At first, I thought that this would be an easy article to write, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were quite a few films that I considered to be noteworthy, phenomenal, or simply enjoyable to watch. While some of these were remakes or updated versions of previous Westerns, there were plenty more that were based on literary works or original screenplays. It took me some time to pare it down to what I considered the best.
This list has a little bit of it all, and while the films may fall short (to some) of those produced during the height of the Western, there are still plenty of phenomenal films of the past twenty years for fans of the important cinematic genre. I also wrote a companion article to this one for fans of RDO, who might want to recreate the outfits of the major characters in the movies listed below.
SPOILER NOTICE: While I tried to write the article in a way to avoid spoilers for those who have not seen these flicks, I have included videos of clips from the film that do indeed contain spoilers, so avoid these if you do not want key scenes spoiled. Anyways, here are my 5 best Western films released since 2000.
5. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
In this remake of the 1957 film of the same name (which in turn was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard,) Christian Bale stars as protagonist Dan Evans and Russell Crowe stars as antagonist Ben Wade. Evans, being low on cash, agrees to escort the notorious outlaw Wade to a train that is set to take him to prison. Ben Foster, playing Wade’s right-hand man Charlie Prince, does a great job of playing a truly sadistic character who seeks to rescue Wade by any means necessary.
Yet, Evans and Wade’s journey is far from being simple, and over the course of two hours, the pair form an unlikely bond with one another as they are forced to work together to survive, often trying to evade the bullets of Wade’s own men.
The biggest thing I like about this film is the unexpected bond that forms between Bale and Crowe. Their on-screen chemistry is believable, and over the course of the movie, you really get a feeling that these two are starting to understand each other better. In fact, this is proven at the end, when Wade’s final actions show that the friendship was genuine.
The Best Scene
The train is waiting at the station, ready to take off. The only trouble is, Evans and Wade still must make it there. The last shootout of the film is a painstaking journey to actually get the outlaw onto the 3:10 train to Yuma. They duck and cover and work their way there methodically and are finally assisted by Evans’ son William, played by Logan Lerman.
However, upon reaching the train, a shocking and unfortunate turn of events transpires. After this occurs, it ultimately ends on an uplifting and surprising note, which helps drive home the theme.
While this is a great work, with superb acting, great on-screen chemistry, and realistic gunfights, I’ve still always felt a little bit of anger as to what transpires here. You will just have to check it out for yourself in the video below.
“If I don’t go, we gotta pack up and leave. Now I’m tired, Alice. I’m tired of watching my boys go hungry. I’m tired of the way that they look at me. I’m tired of the way you don’t.” –Dan Evans.
Academy Awards (Oscars)
Nominated for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score, and Nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Making.
4. Hostiles (2017)
Another Western featuring both Christian Bale and Ben Foster, this movie centers on the common struggle found in the genre, that being the bloodshed and violence between Native Americans and the US government. Set in 1892, the film follows Bale as a renowned Army Captain, Joseph J. Blocker, who is stationed at Fort Berringer in New Mexico, which for several years has served as a Native American prison camp.
The racist Blocker has spent most of his life fighting and fending off Native American enemies, and his prejudiced sentiments are so strong that he nearly accepts being court-martialed rather than accept his mission. He ultimately caves and takes on the responsibility of escorting the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk, played by Wes Studi, so that he may die in his native land of Valley of the Bears, Montana.
The journey becomes complicated further when the party arrives at a massacre scene and are forced to bring the lone survivor, Rosalee Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, along with them as they fend off Comanche warriors along their harrowing adventure. They later become tasked with transporting a soldier accused of murder, played by Foster, to a town where he is to be tried.
The opening scene actually shows the massacre that Rosalee escapes from. This scene recalls one of the greatest and most iconic Westerns of all time in 1956’s The Searchers, starring John Wayne. However, the rest of the film is anything but “traditional” and falls more in line with that of the “revisionist” type.
I like this movie because though it may be too “slow” for some, it deliberately takes its time in showing the grief, hardship, and darkness that belied the American west, which wasn’t always shown in the Westerns of yesteryear. The internal transformation of Blocker, paired with the more realistic violence and brutality of the people and environment of this region, makes for a harrowing and dark, but ultimately, enjoyable viewing.
The Best Scene
The plot culminates in bringing the chief to his land for burial. However, the landowner of the burial spot is not keen on a native being left on his land. Despite being shown a letter from the President himself, the landowner states he will not allow them to keep doing what they are doing on his land.
You’ll have to see for yourself what happens next as Blocker and his party take action. What I like most about this is that it really highlights Blocker’s transformation over the course of the film.
As it progresses, Blocker’s evolution is the most poignant because, as Godfrey Cheshire put it in his review, he is “able to recover his humanity” by learning how to humanize the natives that he once despised. This turnabout is a relatively common motif in revisionist Westerns, but one that feels all that more authentic by Bale’s superb acting skills and the stark dangers faced by the party. The spectacular cinematography, great acting, and violent conflicts coalesce to accurately show the brutal underbelly of 19th-century frontier life.
“Understand this, when we lay our heads down out here, we’re all prisoners.” –Captain Joseph J. Blocker.
Academy Awards (Oscars)
3. Django Unchained (2012)
This film tackles the difficult subject of racism and slavery in America in a poignant and brutal way. Jamie Foxx plays the titular character Django, who is freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played by the great Christoph Waltz, who wants Django to assist him in hunting down the men he is after. King Schultz teaches Django how to use a gun and fight and, in turn, agrees to help Django find his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, who was sold separately by their former owners for trying to escape.
Throughout their adventure, the pair discover that Broomhilda was sold to a slave owner in Mississippi, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Together they come up with a ruse to infiltrate Candie’s plantation in hopes of breaking Broomhilda out. Things don’t go quite as planned, and the remainder of this movie is one blood bath after another, in typical Tarantino fashion.
I’ll admit, I am a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino as a writer and a director (though Tarantino the person has proven himself seriously problematic,) but the first time I saw this, I was really blown away. It is clear that Tarantino reveres the Spaghetti Western as so many of the genre’s tropes show up in the film, yet the writer/director also has a way of subverting what’s expected as well as kicking things up a few notches. While the hyperrealistic violence can be a bit much at times, it is what he is known for and is used to great dramatic effect throughout.
The influences of past movies, including Django and even to some extent Blazing Saddles, make for a familiar entry into the genre, though one that is laser-focused on reckoning with the issue of slavery and racism. Foxx, Washington, Waltz, and DiCaprio deliver stellar performances that make this bloody drama that much more intriguing and believable (especially learning about DiCaprio’s improvisation in one crucial scene, further added to my respect for his abilities as an actor.)
The Best Scene
While there’s more violence that comes after, the scene at “Candyland” when Django and Schultz’s ruse unravels is one of the best. This is the scene where DiCaprio cuts his hand, and it is one of intense suspense. I felt anxious as to how the scene was going to unfold.
While it unwound in unexpected ways, it peaks in typical Tarantino fashion. Since most of the scene takes place in the main hall of Candie’s mansion, the scene feels claustrophobic as all the characters are confined close together, and this only adds to the tension I felt watching the scene. Overall, while there are plenty of memorable scenes in the film, this one is probably my favorite fight scene in the movie.
“I like the way you die, boy.” –Django
Academy Awards (Oscars)
Won, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Christoph Waltz; Won, Best Writing, Original Screenplay, Quentin Tarantino; Nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year; Nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography; and Nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.
2. Open Range (2003)
Robert Duvall stars as “Boss” Spearman, an open range cattle rancher, and Kevin Costner plays Charles “Charlie” Waite, one of Spearman’s hired hands, who is also a Civil War veteran who is remorseful over all the people he has killed. When Spearman and his crew are free-grazing their cattle near the town of Harmonville, they encounter a corrupt sheriff, played by James Russo, as well as a baron rancher, played by Sir Michael Gambon, who doesn’t take kindly to those who free graze on his land.
This duo govern their land through tyranny and utter fear, and after their group is threatened and attacked, Spearman and Charley find that they must take up arms to fight these men and defend their freedom and way of life, which is on the cusp of disappearing.
What I like about this movie is that even though it relies on traditional Western tropes, it does so in a way that mixes humor and romantic relationships as well as a pathos that is based on earnest values. Spearman is a good man who does not believe in “violence for violence’s sake.” Throughout the film, he puts his own life at risk while trying to avoid having to kill someone just so that he feels safe. Meanwhile, Charley has devoted the last decade of his life learning from Spearman and trying to distance himself from the killer he became during the war. In other words, he is struggling and seeking to find a balance between the two sides of himself.
This chemistry and relationship the two share on-screen, as well as the moral code they try to live by, feels genuine and carries with it a sound theme. One gets the sense when watching that it is always better to try Spearman’s route of diplomacy first; however, when true evil and viciousness are encountered, more violence is actually required to quell that.
The acting of the two leading men makes this feel very genuine, and I think renowned critic Roger Ebert said it best when stating that Duvall’s character “elevates Open Range from a good cowboy story into the archetypal region where the best Westerns exist.”
The Best Scene
If the fight scene in Django Unchained is great, then this one is simply spectacular. This is one that I feel is one of the best climactic scenes of any movie ever made, Western or not. The final battle rages on for a staggering 25 minutes of screen time. During this, the battle is portrayed as quite realistic as a lot more bullets miss their mark than they do, hitting what they are intended for.
Over the course of the battle, the heroes are outgunned and seem as if they are about to lose the battle; but Charley, having seen war and how different men handle these situations, believes they still have a fighting chance to win. As luck would have it, some surprising people come to their aid to help turn the tide of the shootout. Simply put, it’s one of the finest fights of any movie I’ve seen, and it is truly just the cherry on top for this genuine, wholesome Western.
“Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t letting no rancher or his lawman take either.” –Boss Spearman.
Academy Awards (Oscars)
1. The Hateful Eight (2015)
In this star-studded cast, suspense, ultra-violence, distrust, survival, and wits all amalgamate to create a phenomenal movie that is part Western, part survival, and part whodunit mystery. Set in wintery Wyoming, the film focuses on a stagecoach driven by O.B. Jackson, played by James Parks, and which is occupied by Kurt Russell as John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter hellbent on making sure his bounty, Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is taken to Red Rock so that he can collect his $10,000 reward for getting her there alive and she can be hanged for her crimes.
Along the way, Major Marquis “The Bounty Hunter” Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson, attempts to get a ride on the stagecoach so that he may transport three dead bounties of his own to the town. They also pick up Chris Mannix, played by Walter Goggins, who tells the group he is the new sheriff of Red Rock and is looking to fetch a ride there as well.
On their journey, a blizzard intensifies, and the crew in the stagecoach is forced to take up shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery. There they find it is in the care of Bob “The Mexican,” played by Demian Bichir, who tells the group that Minnie is away visiting family. Upon entering the establishment, the group meets the others staying at the joint: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an Englishman and supposed hangman of Red Rock; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a quiet cowboy keeping to himself, and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly former Confederate General.
Distrusting of one another, the group is stuck together to weather the storm, but the fragile tether of survival begins to unwind as Ruth and Warren become suspicious of the others, thinking some people are not who they say they are and are actually there intending to break Domergue out of custody.
First off, I must say that I cannot help but appreciate the reverence shown for past films, Westerns, or otherwise. In particular, it pays obvious reverence to the John Ford-directed classic Stagecoach (1939), which set the tone for the genre as a whole and made John Wayne a star. It also is clearly influenced by Rio Bravo (1959), another Duke classic, as well as The Thing (1982), which is the only film, besides his own Reservoir Dogs (1992) that Tarantino showed to the cast. As always, Tarantino has a great way of honoring those who came before him while still making a title his own.
While it takes a long time to set up the plot and introduce the audience to its various characters, I feel that this pays off in the long run. Most of the movie takes place “inside,” whether it be in the stagecoach or in the haberdashery. This works well to heighten the differing personalities confined by these spaces, add to the palpable irritability, and fill the entire film with immense suspense. I felt held in suspense throughout most of the viewing, which very few manage to do for me.
Race is examined yet again in this Tarantino Western, though this time, it is examined within the context of post-civil war America. In Django, bitterness was rampant throughout the protagonists, who were disgusted by the institution of slavery. Here though, the bitterness seeps through every character of the film—the characters tied to the Confederacy are bitter in having lost the war, and Warren is bitter in still not being truly accepted by either side. The vitriol between him and the white southern characters is palpable, and each comment hurled at one another, slur or otherwise, has a more stinging and poisonous effect than in the previous title.
All of this just boils down to a film where, as the title suggests, hatred is abundant. This vitriol is heavily laced throughout the film, so much so that the movie can be hard to watch at times. I think this boiling pot of mischievous characters stuck in confined spaces not only makes for great entertainment, but it perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of how it must have felt for people in post-Civil War America, regardless of who one was. Antipathy, resentment, and animosity really are the overall moods of the picture, and to that aim, Tarantino projects that perfectly.
The Best Scene
With everything leading up to the last quarter of the film, viewers really shouldn’t anticipate a happy ending. Still, every character ends up hurt or worse in one way or another, and the ending is left ambiguous (though not really) as to who does or doesn’t live. By any means, I believe this could definitely be considered what the Greeks would refer to as a “tragedy.”
Warren and Mannix end the movie trying to figure out who is there to break Domergue out of custody. Unexpectedly, another person is also hiding at the establishment and shows himself through the most traumatizing of ways to Warren. From there, it is one blood bath after another of tension and bloody horror. It ends as one might expect it to, but the journey getting there, in addition to the conclusion, is part of what makes this film my top pick.
“You only need to hang mean bastards but mean bastards you need to hang.” –John Ruth.
“That’s the thing about war, Mannix, people die.” –Major Marquis Warren
“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” –Oswaldo Mobray
Academy Awards (Oscars)
Won, Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score; Nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role,
Jennifer Jason Leigh; and Nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography.
If I had done a 10 Best List, my picks ten through six (respectively) would probably include the films Seraphim Falls (2006), Appaloosa (2008), The Magnificent Seven (2016), Bone Tomahawk (2015), and The Proposition (2005). What movies would you include in your 5 Best or 10 Best List? Are there any films not mentioned that you think deserve a ranking? Leave a comment below.
3:10 to Yuma video by Marilyn Monroe 1926
Hostiles video by Jeff Levensailor
Django Unchained video by BadWolf
Open Range video by Film Vibe
The Hateful Eight video by Brandi Crans