Almost a decade ago, the 2008 Academy Awards saw an influx of Westerns. No Country for Old Men took the Best Picture statuette (among others), while nominations for sound and cinematography were dished out to 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was a less straightforward example of the genre, using the southwestern wilderness as the backdrop for an exploration of capitalist greed rather than horse chases and gunfights. On the whole, the Western seemed to be on the rise.
As we enter 2018, the scene is quite different. The closest thing to an Oscar-tipped Western is Logan, a revisionist superhero picture by 3:10 to Yuma director James Mangold. Meanwhile, Yuma costars Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in Hostiles, released this week to a mixed reception. So: is the Western dead? Seeing as it’s survived this long, probably not. But since a genre can only survive through innovation, it’s worth checking out the good, bad, and weird movies that have marked the Western’s progress in the last 10 years.
Three years after the success of No Country, the Coen brothers made True Grit – on the surface a more traditional Western, but arguably a more revisionist one. The Revisionist Western sub-genre, generally speaking, seeks to counter the archetype of the heroic white man found in the vast majority of Western narratives (think of John Wayne – though a handful of Wayne vehicles are a little more nuanced). No Country resembles a lot of Revisionist Westerns, in that it upends only the “heroic” part of the archetype. Like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Unforgiven (1992), its protagonists are amoral and/or ineffectual men, whose world punishes attempts at heroism. True Grit is similarly brutal, but goes a step further by having its point of view be that of teenage girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) rather than grizzled Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges – or, in the 1969 version, John Wayne on fairly typical form).
Alongside True Grit, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) must be the most fun a Revisionist Western has had flipping the heroic-white-man script in the last decade. Though technically a “southern” if we’re splitting hairs, the film uses plenty of Spaghetti Western stylisation in its quest to have Jamie Foxx wreck Leonardo DiCaprio’s day in the most batshit gunfights possible. Tarantino’s love of that hyperbolic Sergio Leone style – all extreme long-shots, grimy closeups, and dramatic zooms – is evident in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, but his second full-fledged Western took a different angle. The Hateful Eight (2016) may be set in the old west, but it quickly abandons the wide-open country for a claustrophobic cabin-fever plot – less like Django, more like Reservoir Dogs in period costume.
Other revisionist takes, such as Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and The Homesman (2014), have centred the perspectives of women settlers – though there is also considerable focus on the men in those films’ titles, heroic or otherwise. Likewise, films such as The Revenant (2015) and Wind River (2017) have included Native American characters who are more than just foils for white protagonists (and are, in a fact that should not be as rare as it is, played by actual indigenous people) – though perhaps the presence of white protagonists at all means the genre hasn’t progressed since Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 acid Western Dead Man.
Despite the knock to its revisionist bona fides, the aforementioned Wind River is an otherwise positive sign for the genre. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has written three critically-lauded films in the last three years, which demonstrate a keen understanding of what the Western can do in the present day. The first of this de facto trilogy, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015), is the least indebted to Western conventions. However, its multifaceted female protagonist and deft handling of violence along the US-Mexico frontier show us what Sheridan can bring to the modern Western.
Sheridan’s followup, Hell or High Water (2016), is a proper neo-Western complete with southwest wilderness, two-bit thieves, and be-hatted Texas Rangers. The injection of just enough present-day politics – the thieves are ripping off the bank that foreclosed on their mother’s farm after the recession – keeps the film feeling connected to the real world in a way that many period Westerns do not. That reality-feeling extends to the shootouts, which are rare, weighty, and feel dangerous in a way that movie gunfights rarely do.
Wind River, Sheridan’s latest and his first as director, continues his streak of exemplary modern Westerns. The old Ford/Leone/Peckinpah DNA is not immediately apparent beneath the layer of snow and “CSI Wyoming” setup, but at the film’s heart are themes common to both classic and Revisionist Westerns: humanity’s relationship with the wilderness, the contrast between the community and the solitary wanderer, and the violence that ensues outside the reach of law. Wind River is at once rooted in the Western’s past and is vitally, tragically, up-to-date: driving the action is the American government’s neglect of the reservations, particularly the wilful ignorance towards violence against native women.
Sheridan’s films display a sincere love for Westerns even as they raise questions of gender, class, and race that were once largely absent from the genre. His direction of Wind River feels less like a pastiche of the form and more like its natural evolution – he combines the contemplative panoramas and frenetic gunfights of the classic Western with bits and pieces of neo-noir and modern thriller. As such, Sheridan’s style is likely the closest we have to a straight Western for the present day. His approach has certainly been more successful than various committees’ attempts to revive ancient Westerns as blockbusters – with middling to naff results – or graft the genre onto the latest crossover hit. We’re lucky he’s in demand.
Then again, perhaps straightening out the Western isn’t all that’s called for. The genre has a history of thriving on the fringes, where its well-established conventions could mutate into El Topo and Walker and Dead Man. The last decade has seen a few oddballs emerge from American Western filmmaking, including the above-mentioned Tarantino pictures. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is a quietly contemplative survival film set on the Oregon Trail, while Slow West (2015) mines the frontier for black comedy. Logan is a mainstream hit thanks to the Marvel connection, but its combination of Wolverine and Johnny Cash is impressively weird.
Speaking of the fringes, there is plenty of innovation to be found in non-US Westerns. Paradoxically, some of the genre’s best are set outside North America entirely. The same year No Country won Best Picture, Cannes saw the premiere of Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a lunatic treasure hunt across 1930s Manchuria that pits gunslingers against the Imperial Japanese Army. Jauja (2014) is a vivid surrealist picture about Danes in Patagonia, while another international co-production, Mimosas (2016), gives Western tropes a metaphysical turn in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Finally, an upcoming release to watch out for is Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, slated for March. Set in the Australian outback, it focuses on Aboriginal life in the 1920s and does a better job than many US Westerns of giving indigenous people voices and agency.