10 Great Westerns You May Not Have Seen
Updated / Saturday, 12 Sep 2020 11:43
Christian Bale in Hostiles
Going West? Ride shotgun with these travelling companions.
Having done his bit to safeguard the Western with 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, Christian Bale was back in the saddle for this elegiac examination of one world becoming another – a cross-country odyssey of the soul and a white-knuckle story of the evil that men do. The setting is 1892 where, in the last days of the Wild West, traumatised US Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) is given one last mission before being pensioned off. He is to bring dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from the stockade in New Mexico back to the sacred Cheyenne territory of the Valley of the Bears in Montana. Orders received, a sense of doom descends. Hostiles opens with the chilling DH Lawrence quote that “The essential American soul is hard, stoic, isolate, and a killer.” Sure enough, writer-director Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart) sets out to find the truth in that assertion through Blocker, the comrades and foes who ride with him, and the others they encounter along the way. For all the film’s flies-on-clothes grittiness and bursts of violence, it’s also beautiful and heart-rending with character moments to treasure. How more wasn’t made of Hostiles remains a mystery. It’s arguably the most affecting work Bale has ever done in a role specifically written for him by his Out of the Furnace director Cooper. You know it from the moment he puts those eyes on you.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Here, John C Reilly gets the perfect partner in crime – Joaquin Phoenix. Guns-for-hire Eli and Charlie Sisters are almost out of ammo. The sensitive Eli (Reilly) is tired of the killing, the clientele and the after-hours antics of oafish younger brother Charlie (Phoenix). He tells him: “We’ve had a good long run, we’re still alive, we’ve a bit of our youth left – this is a chance to get out.” But, of course, there’s one last job. It involves gold – and you know how that usually turns out… If you were asked what would be the unlikeliest film that Rust and Bone and A Prophet director Jacques Audiard could make, chances are a Western would be neck and neck with a musical. And yet here he is, wandering in the long grass for his English-language debut with Spain standing in for California in 1851. And how. Quirky and quixotic, The Sisters Brothers sees Audiard making the lonesome West his own, messing ’round with genre expectations as he brings Patrick deWitt’s much-loved novel to screen. There’s a jazzy score, more bickering than bang bang and as for the showdown… If ever a film could make you feel that you’re breathing the freshest of air, it’s this one. It will also make you want to hit that trail – in the best of good company.
Hell or High Water (2016)
We’re in West Texas with David Mackenzie, a director who really loves to roam – the man has done everything from quirky teenage love story Hallam Foe to prison movie Starred Up. Now, Mackenzie himself has contended that Hell or High Water isn’t a Western, but that’s just the kind of stuff directors say when they don’t want to be pigeonholed. Fact is, his film deserves its place among the best as bank-robbing brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster try to stay 101 steps ahead of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. It’d be easier to cross the Lone Star State on a unicycle than to fund a fault with this gem – everything from music to pace to cinematography is masterful. With a perfectly weighted script from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water mixes the cowboy code with cat-and-mouse chase scenes, social commentary, black comedy and family drama. The result is a movie that goes like a dream and is as exciting as it is poignant. In terms of performances, we really are spoiled for choice. Doubters about Chris Pine’s talents will see the best thing he’s done. Bridges’ work is every bit as special as his Rooster Cogburn in the Coens’ True Grit. Foster gives us a nasty piece of work, only to then make us care about the character. And in a role that could easily have been swallowed up by Bridges’ force of nature, Birmingham is excellent as the dignified straight man in a wonderful double act. Truly inspired casting all around. It’ll definitely leave its dust in your bones, and something in your eye.
Slow West (2015)
Trippy, touching and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, John Maclean’s debut feature with friend and star Michael Fassbender is a great example of the small story, done well. Our hero is Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee – the kid from The Road), a naïf who comes “from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America” in search of his true love, Rose. Knowing as much about survival as he does about women, Jay is a murder waiting to happen. Into his wide-eyed world comes Silas (Fassbender), a worn-out gun-for-hire who takes Jay under his wing and agrees to bring him to Rose. For a price, naturally. With wonderful chemistry between Smit-McPhee as the “jackrabbit in the den of wolves” and Fassbender as the cigarillo-chewing cut-throat, this story of an odd couple out in the middle of nowhere mixes humour, pathos and the bizarre to create a quest where you’re unsure about what’s going to happen next. As in life so on screen; there’s something so rewarding about watching a hard man yield to his own sense of humanity. But don’t worry – it’s not arty enough to neglect the six-gun action. Nor should you allow the title to fool you: there are no problems with pacing here. The clothes may look a little too new for down-and-dirty 1870, but in every other area Slow West is full of old school satisfaction.
High Noon. In space. With Sean Connery. In baseball cap and bomber jacket he plays William O’Neil, the newly-arrived marshal in a mining operation on Jupiter’s second moon, Io. A spate of worker deaths, corporate skulduggery and O’Neil’s determination to make sure the “job is done” set us up for the back-to-the-wall showdown, the digital clocks reminding us that every second counts… As with The Hill and The Offence, Outland offers another of Connery’s often-missed but much-to-admire performances, naturally with more charisma than all the titanium shipped from the colony. There wasn’t much love for Westerns circa 1980, but Peter Hyams – director of Mars conspiracy classic Capricorn One – came up with a great workaround by suiting up his own script, proving that 628 million kilometres away and centuries later you can still hitch up in a frontier town. Like its cinematic contemporary Alien, Outland has aged very well, with the superb production design, gritty tech and Jerry Goldsmith score all there for lovers of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. There’s great chemistry too between Connery and the redoubtable Frances Sternhagen, cast here as Io’s interstellar sawbones, the brilliantly-named Dr Lazarus. Outland didn’t do the business at the box office upon its release, but it has since become a cult favourite. You’ll be in the company of Moon director Duncan Jones if you join that particular posse.
Never Grow Old (2019)
Dubliner Ivan Kavanagh crafted a great addition to the one-man-stands-tall honour roll with this story of supping with the devil, filmed in Connemara, in a co-production with, wait for it, Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy knew quality when they read it, as did US stars Emile Hirsch and John Cusack, who found some gold in Glengowla Mines outside Oughterard. Our West becomes the rain-soaked California of 1849, where Irish undertaker Patrick Tate (Hirsch) can’t keep up with the business after man in black Dutch Albert (Cusack) rides into liquor-free town and decides to transform it into his own infernal kingdom. The sheriff does nothing; Tate wrestles with his conscience in the mud and Dutch sits back and smiles – when he’s not reducing the population on a nightly basis. Hirsch is suitably understated as the mouse nibbling at the cheese in the trap and has the perfect foil in Cusack, who is nothing short of a revelation as the whispering monster. Recalling both Randall Flagg from Stephen King’s The Stand and – ironically – The Undertaker from the WWE, Cusack does some of the best work of his lengthy career as the goading dark side of the humble hero’s mind, proving once again that anyone who’s talented at comedy also has all the goods when it comes to being bad. Rarely has a knock on the door had so much dread behind it. Hopefully Kavanagh will return to the front porch in the dead of night.
Seven Men from Now (1956)
A former colleague provided the introduction to the gloriously-titled Seven Men from Now. He’d heard about it, in the way these things happen, from a taxi driver on the way home one night. You’ll probably be doing your bit for word of mouth afterwards too. This is one from way back when to keep for a Sunday afternoon. At 76 minutes, it’s a quick watch that crams plenty in and still holds up in terms of pace and plotting. Randall Scott is the ex-lawman out for revenge in the first of his classic run of collaborations with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy. You can work your way through The Tall T, Decision at Sundown (another awesome title – but not a Kennedy script), Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Commanche Station in the weeks to come. In the meantime, there’s great support here from Gail Russell as the married woman who develops feelings for her new friend; and a dark-haired Lee Marvin, who excels in the good-bad-guy-or-bad-good-guy role?, leaving you guessing right up to the very end. Seven Men from Now was produced by John Wayne’s Batjac shingle. He had wanted to play Scott’s character but was signed up for another project – the opportunity missed was reportedly a source of regret. And the other film? The Searchers. Now you know you’re not dealing with muck.
Black ’47 (2018)
The saying goes that revenge is a dish best served cold. Or in this case damp. It’s in your bones right from the start of director Lance Daly’s Black ’47 – an Irish Western in all but name. Australian actor James Frecheville plays Feeney, an Irish Ranger who deserts and returns home to Famine-stricken Connemara following his mother’s death and brother’s execution. Transforming into an almost supernatural force, Feeney draws up a hit-list of officialdom – and anyone else who gets in the way of his quest for justice. Dispatched on Feeney’s trail is former comrade Hannah (Hugo Weaving, channelling Oliver!’s Bill Sykes), a man whose only conviction appears to be that his day of reckoning awaits somewhere between The Pale and the Atlantic Coast. Black ’47 feels like a chilblain-crammed shoot, but the suffering has delivered a film with grit by the quarryful. Like Feeney, this story takes no prisoners, with the narrative pitching two desperate men against each other for nothing more than another day’s survival amidst all the devastation. Frecheville speaks Irish throughout but never chews the scenes like a young fella with notions competing at a Feis. Instead, he observes one of the never-fail rules of acting: stay as quiet as you can, and let the camera read your mind. Weaving makes for an equally ferocious – and worn-out – adversary. You can see the influence of the likes of The Wild Bunch and The Proposition on Daly’s filmmaking. A dry mouth is a common occurrence for the viewer.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
If ever a film starts as it means to go on it’s S Craig Zahler’s bloody and banter-filled way-out Western. Kurt Russell (the sheriff), Richard Jenkins (the never-shuts-up deputy), Matthew Fox (the lethal dandy) and Patrick Wilson (the broken-legged rancher) set off on a rescue mission from the town of Bright Hope. With every gallop the chances of them all making it home fade. This genre mash-up gives horror a home on the range but also manages to be tender, blackly humourous and downright disgusting – often in the one scene. If you haven’t the stomach for viscera, pick something else on this list; but if you reckon you’re good with gore, then there are many treats en route to the Valley of the Starving Men. And once they get there… Zahler found his own fab four for his debut, and the antagonism between its heroic quartet is every bit as much fun as the atavistic action that awaits. Showing a flair for understatement (the only example associated with this movie), star Fox told Entertainment Weekly at the time of Bone Tomahawk’s release: “The fact that I’m in a Western with Kurt Russell is pretty cool.” Indeed, spending two hours with the keeper of the flame in the safety and comfort of your own home is no hardship either, but probably best enjoyed on an empty stomach.
The Nightingale (2018)
“You don’t want trouble, but sometimes trouble wants you…” Rarely has a line captured a film so perfectly as this chilling retort at the start of The Nightingale. It also sums up the story’s grip on its three stars – and what awaits audiences who take the harrowing journey with them. This rampage of revenge marks another reckoning in Australian cinema and sees The Fall’s Aisling Franciosi deliver a career-making performance as Clare, an Irish convict on the hunt for Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the British officer who has destroyed her life. Helping Clare is Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker who shows her a way to reconnect with her own humanity as they pick their steps through Tasmania in 1825. Writer-director Jennifer Kent convinced many to leave the lights on with her child-in-peril debut The Babadook, but The Nightingale is scarier because it is so grounded in reality. The violence and racism are truly shocking, but there are also moments of astounding natural beauty, and unexpected tenderness. Your own understanding of strength and fragility is questioned throughout. Although it is actors’ wont to declare themselves forever changed by characters, in this case that assertion feels like something of an understatement. Franciosi’s brilliant work is matched by a cast-against-type Claflin, while newcomer Ganambarr’s portrayal of Indigenous suffering and power is simply stunning. No amount of warnings can prepare you for the first 25 minutes; there’s as much chance of forgetting The Nightingale as there is of wanting to watch it again.