When Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won multiple Oscars in the space of two years in the early 90’s it looked the Western was making a comeback after many years in the cinematic wilderness. Indeed, Costner returned to the screen soon after in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp in 1994, while Kurt Russell played the same character in Tombstone (1993).
Unfortunately, the resurgence was short-lived. There were no major Western projects subsequently from either studios or big name film makers. Movie goers in the next 25 years have preferred to watch dinosaurs, aliens, wizards, elves, robots, pirates, vampires, spies and superheroes – both real and computer-generated for their big screen entertainment; anything other than cowboys, it seems. One of the reasons is the globalization of Hollywood; big studio productions today earn as much as 70-80% of their box office revenue from outside North America. Movies are a product and the product needs to appeal to international tastes; therefore making a period film rooted in a very specific geographical and cultural setting is not smart business sense.
So it has been a dry spell for those who are spellbound by the amber colors, wide vistas and gritty characters that define the essence of a Western. Sure, there have been a few here and there, most of which have been really good, such as Ang Lee’s Civil War epic Ride with the Devil (1999), Costner’s own return to the genre with Open Range (2003), Ed Harris’ entertaining Appaloosa (2008), Andrew Dominik’s little seen but much acclaimed The Assissanation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen Bros.’ remake of True Grit (2010), Jared Moshe’s Dead Man’s Burden (2012) and Quentin Tarention’s Django Unchained (2012) – although that last should probably be called a ‘South-western’…
And when big studios have entered the genre, they have ended up with big budget disasters like Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013).
But interestingly, in the past two years, there has been a spike in the number of Westerns produced. They are almost all small scale, independent productions but all have strong scripts and notable performances from well known actors. Some of these films are interesting hybrids, integrating other genres like horror, whodunnit or thriller or moving it into a modern day setting:
The Homesman (2014): This wonderful understated film directed by Tommy Lee Jones has him playing a dour ornery drifter (as only he can) who is employed by a devout settler (Hilary Swank) to transport 3 mentally ill women from their isolated farming community back to civilization. Swank’s acting received several awards but somehow got missed out by the Oscars. Look out for some other big names in small roles!
The Hateful Eight (2015): Tarentino stayed with the Western genre in this follow-up to Django Unchained. With more than half the movie set inside a log cabin in the midst of a winter storm, this one plays more like a locked-room mystery or whodunnit rather than a regular Western. Fantastic performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Walton Goggins.
Bone Tomahawk (2015): Directed by first-time director S. Craig Zahler, this film features Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson on the trail of cannibalistic natives living in a cave in the hills, who have kidnapped several people from their town. It’s a wonderful character piece (much like The Searchers), with a truly scary 3rd act and one of the most horrifying screen deaths you will see anywhere!
Slow West (2015): This one is also directed by debutant film maker, John Maclean. This buddy movie has Kodi Smit-McPhee playing a young man on a cross-country journey in search of the woman he loves with Michael Fassbender as the mysterious stranger who befriends the naive young boy and decides to help him on his quest.
In a Valley of Violence (2016): This film is produced by horror experts Blumhouse Productions and director Ti West. This is a typical revenge story of the mysterious stranger who gets into a fight with some bullies while passing through an isolated town, then goes back to take revenge on the men when they attack him and leave him for dead. The director throws in a few ‘horror’ beats for good measure (because he can!) and there are some fun comedic elements in the 3rd act dialogue. Ethan Hawke and good old John Travolta make this one worth watching.
Hell or High Water (2016): Coming fresh off 3 Golden Globe nominations, indie film maker David Mackenzie puts together a modern-day Western, with two bank-robber brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on the run from experienced lawman Jeff Bridges. Like Travolta, Mr. Bridges has been doing this acting thing for so long that he can probably dial in a performance in his sleep. The first two-thirds of the film is genuinely engaging although I did feel that the film stumbled a bit as it reached a predictable shootout finale.
I don’t know if this is another blip on the radar and if we will go back to another barren stretch in the next few years. Hopefully all these new films have been profitable and studios discover that it makes good business sense to make good Westerns!