I love Westerns. Everyone should love Westerns. The world would be a better place if they did.
The Western is the oldest of all film genres. The first narrative film ever made was The Great Train Robbery (1903) and it was a Western. Hollywood has had a long time in which to get the genre perfected. But, Hollywood being Hollywood, it still doesn’t always get it right.
Because I love Westerns so much I may tend to be a little more forgiving of the lesser ones than a more critical viewer. That said, I still have no interest in watching Young Guns (1988) or Bad Girls (1994).
I got to thinking that there have been a few not too shabby Westerns in the past 25 years. I thought it might be a good idea to take a quick look at four of the more recent ones that I find to be pretty damn good. I won’t include Unforgiven (1992) and Tombstone (1993). They are fantastic, but everybody knows those two. They don’t need my touting.
I’m also going to avoid remakes such as 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), both are also very good. But, they found a larger audience.
So, here are four very recent Westerns that were somewhat overlooked, but I think are worth watching:
Bone Tomahawk (2015):
This genre bending film, the most recent on my list, is about 8 1/2 parts Western and 1 1/2 parts Horror. It stars Kurt Russell as the world-weary sheriff of the small prairie town of Bright Hope. Russell is excellent and definitely needs to make more Westerns!
As the film opens, we come upon two drifters cutting the throats of sleeping cowboys in order to steal their goods. After securing a few valuables, the drifters stumble into a sacred Indian burial land and are attacked for the violation. One drifter (David Arquette) escapes to Bright Hope and ends up in jail with one of the sheriff’s bullets in his leg.
A townswoman (Lil Simmons) who assists the town’s doctor, who was too drunk to be of any help, was summoned to help with the drifter. She, the drifter, and a deputy are abducted during the night by a particularly savage clan of cannibalistic Indians. The sheriff, his “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins), the town’s wealthiest and most learned man with plenty of Indian killing under his belt (Matthew Fox), and the husband (Patrick Wilson) of the abducted woman set out to rescue the three who had been taken.
The film follows this group into the “troglodyte” clan’s territory and they enter a horrifying world of brutal savagery. The third act of this film displays some very stark and stomach-turning violence inflicted by this Indian clan that pushes this Western into the realm of horror.
The acting is terrific and the dialogue feels authentic, even when people have conversations that are more meant to define their character, not service the plot.
Watch for an amusing cameo by Sean Young.
The Homesman (2014):
This Western stars Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones (who also directs) as a pair of frontier misfits brought together to see that three prairie dwelling woman, who have lost their minds, are transported safely back to the East where they can get the care they need. The harsh living conditions had driven these women over the edge of sanity and their husbands could no longer care for them, but were unable or unwilling to caravan the sick women back to Iowa.
An old maid, property owner Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), spurned by men due to her being too ugly and too bossy, volunteers to take the women. As she starts out she encounters George Briggs (Jones) on the verge of being hanged. She rescues him and strikes a bargain for his assistance.
It’s a harsh country. It’s little wonder the three women lost their grip on reality. It takes hard people to tame such a hard land. Is Mary Bee hard enough?
The Dark Valley (2014):
This Austrian-German Western (Yes! Austrian-German! There are subtitles.) is set in the Austrian Alps where an isolated town is under the thumb of Old Brenner and his six sons. The town holds a dark secret kept from the audience until well into the film.
The townspeople live in fear of the Brenners, but there is little they feel they can do in such an isolated land. As another harsh winter closes in, a wedding between two of the young townspeople is pending. Normally a joyous time elsewhere in the world, in this town there’s a dread of the Brenners that grows as the ceremony approaches.
One day a stranger rides into town…
Open Range (2003):
My favorite of this batch. This Western feels more like the Westerns of old, but not hokey as many of them could be. There’s a strong sense of being honorable on the part of Boss (Robert Duvall), an old cowboy who doesn’t look to get into a fight, but he won’t be done wrong. Boss is driving a herd of cattle with his longtime partner Charley (Kevin Costner) and two others when they are set upon by an Irish land baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who hates open range cattle feeders.
One of Boss’s men is killed and another, the youngest of the group, is severally wounded. Boss and Charley take the young man into town to get him treated by the town doctor. There they meet a woman they assume is the doctor’s wife (Annette Bening) and Charley falls in love. It turns out she is the doctor’s sister.
The love story isn’t necessary in the film, but it feels genuine, as they come to realize their feelings for each other.
But, they still need to deal with Baxter and his men. Charley has seen and done his share of killing. He’s good at it, but he wants to leave it behind. He can’t. This wrong must be dealt with.
With the help of the livery owner (Michael Jeter), Charley and Boss take on Baxter and his men in a shoot out that feels real. There’s none of the grab their gut and slowly drop off the roof kind of shooting in this Western. Charley knows how to kill and how to read his opponents and he uses that advantage well. Boss may not be the gunslinger Charley is, but he can take care of himself.
There’s a close quarters gunfight between Boss and Baxter that is sloppy and inefficient and feels so real. None of that quick draw, shoot dead eight opponents with one six shooter kind of gunfighting here. They miss at close range almost more than they hit. That’s how I imagine real gunfights going down.
Open Range feels honest and authentic throughout.
Don’t let anyone tell you good Westerns aren’t being made anymore. Just give them these four examples.
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