The word “auteur” is bandied around an awful lot in film criticism to easily distinguish “good” filmmakers from the merely mediocre crowd. A director helms three successful mid-budget films on the bounce and suddenly they are the primary creative force behind a resurgence of exemplary original filmmaking. Throw in a few recurring visual and thematic motifs… et voila.
It’s funny that the word was first used by French film critics in the 1940s to boldly differentiate the work coming out of their home country from the matteurs en scene churning stuff out of the Hollywood system. Yet it would go on to become most closely associated with classic American filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah; directors who would no doubt scoff at being labelled in such a way, but were also largely responsible for the Western genre as we have come to know it, and are now the go-to examples (along with Hitchcock, Fellini, Godard and the like).
What we call “Westerns” were originally known as “railroad”, “military” and “Indian” films prior to a 1912 issue of The Motion Picture World where the term was first coined. It seems as though the genre has been around forever, but its first death knell came post-1927’s The Virginian, as audiences were sick of the genre’s saturation. Sound familiar to modern audience’s complaints about superhero films?
Of course this didn’t last forever. A certain John Wayne-starring Stagecoach arrived in the late 30’s to reignite the popularity of outlaws and settling the Wild West. In one form or another, this popularity continued right the way through until the 60’s, where revisionist and spaghetti Westerns made Classic Westerns appear antiquated and corny. But by the 70’s, Westerns were almost through. Save for the odd Tombstone or Unforgiven here, or the occasional The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or Young Guns there, the genre had seemingly given all that it had to give.
That’ll be the day! To tie in to the release of the Kit Harington, Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce starring Brimstone, we have put together a list of five other modern Westerns to check out. Starting with…
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
As tempting as it is to start with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight, let’s seize this opportunity to instead push a few lesser-seen Westerns of the past few years.
Although not as popular with audiences as it should be, but nevertheless a frequent occurrence on similar lists (for good reason) is Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. The director is famed for creating independent movies that can be somewhat inaccessible at first glance due to their minimalism and reliance on the audience having enough patience to wait for more information to be revealed as it progresses, such as Night Moves and Certain Women. Her third collaboration with screenwriter Jon Raymond is no exception.
The story is based on a version of events from the real-life Oregon trail of 1845 as the charismatic Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads a group of settlers across the harsh desert plains before a series of unfortunate incidents leave the group stranded and lost. Paul Dano, Will Patton and, most impressively of all, Michelle Williams, all put in magnificent performances in a drama that can only be described as being as arid, dry, desolate and remorseless as the Oregon landscape looks.
The Salvation (2014)
Paying homage to the spaghetti variety of the Western genre, with all the recognisable conventions of the ‘stranger comes to town’ story, Mads Mikkelsen leads the way as Jon Jenson, the Dane who avenges the death of his wife and child. Things go from bad to worse when land baron Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) learns that Jon killed his brother. In what could be an ode to High Noon, the townsfolk turn their back on Jon, who must defend himself, albeit with a little help from the mute Madelaine (Eva Green). If that wasn’t enough to sell The Salvation to you, then you should also know that Eric Cantona pops up too.
Also in keeping with spaghetti Westerns, Kristian Levring shot his movie outside of the US; albeit south of the equator in South Africa rather than somewhere particularly known for its pasta dishes.
It’s fair to say that as the stakes escalate for poor old Jon, the film gets progressively more engrossing. The plot won’t pull up any trees as it’s something seen a hundred times before, but that is somewhat the point. The Salvation plugs a gap in the market for a proper old school revenge Western. Every actor involved is perfectly cast, from Jeffrey Dean Morgan at his most menacing, to Mads Mikkelsen heroically fighting against the odds. It’s just a shame that Eva Green has no lines of dialogue.
Slow West (2015)
Short at under 90 minutes long but slow-burning, as the title would suggest, John Maclean’s (no, not the character from Die Hard) almost poetic Western describes the distance that young love can take you as the 17-year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leaves his Scottish home to find his long lost love in the new Frontier. Along the way he meets the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender) who escorts his Scottish chum to his destination… for a price.
Ben Mendelsohn gives a scene-stealing performance as the pelt-wearing Payne, whose gang track Jay and Silas on their journey. It’s a tale of romance, companionship and the classic loss of innocence that Westerns do so well, all told in a sincere way. Despite its brief runtime, Slow West also benefits from repeat viewings as there is more to absorb than is at first immediately obvious. As well as looking gorgeous with some beautifully shot passages, the story and characters are a grower. Plus, watching it more than once means you get to see the tremendous final act unfold all over again, and that is definitely worth your time.
The Homesman (2014)
Perhaps the most mainstream and “American” movie on this list is the Tommy Lee Jones starring The Homesman, written by Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel, which Paul Newman originally owned the rights to, the plot revolves around Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) who transports a wagon containing three mad women to Iowa for medical attention and enlists the help of a drifter (Tommy Lee Jones) along the way.
The Homesman is loaded with A-listers. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, the list goes on. Given the cast and the story, you would be forgiven for taking one look at this and assuming it is a typically saccharine American drama that acts as a vehicle for its main star, and yet it is anything but.
It is never afraid to pack a punch, both emotional and visual, as the bleak depressing desperation gradually consumes the lives of the protagonists. Sure, it feels a little Hollywood from time-to-time, but this road-trip Western is expertly written and balances the line between schmalz and depth with aplomb.
Bone Tomahawk (2016)
Well. Few films mentioned thus far have spanned multiple genres quite in the same way as Bone Tomahawk, which manages to fuse conventional Western characters with a cannibal-horror situation. After the crippled Arthur’s (Patrick Wilson) wife is kidnapped by a tribe of “cannibalistic cave-dwelling savages”, thanks to a couple of drifters desecrating a holy site, Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) leads a posse including the war veteran Brooker (Matthew Fox) and the widowed elderly deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to retrieve her.
Understandably, few Westerns dare to treat Native Americans as murdering monsters or villains to be feared. However, as explained in the course of the story, this is not about “our culture” vs “their culture”. These are no ordinary war-hungry, horse-stealing, head-scalping savages of less-PC times, but is purely based in a The Hills Have Eyes scenario, as one group of civilised folk are attacked by an ultra-violent group of no specific origin.
Despite its tendency to switch from one genre to the other at the drop of a wide-brimmed hat, Bone Tomahawk is the one film on this list that will teach you the most about the Western as a genre. Each character represents a different era for the Western, with Patrick Wilson’s Arthur representing good old-fashioned virtuous American men of the fourties, or Matthew Fox’s Brooker representative of the revisionist anti-heroes that arrived through the sixties, each person exists for a specific reason. S. Craig Zahler’s movie is tense, impressively well constructed, and even grotesque at times. But it is quite possibly the best Western of this generation.
Do you have a bone to pick with our list? Think you can do better? Let us know in the comments!