The Essential Revisionist Westerns of the 21st Century

Hasitha Fernando on the essential revisionist westerns of the 21st century…

Revisionist Westerns or Anti-Westerns have been around for quite some time. Although there themes have existed since the early part of the 20th century, it wasn’t until 1968 when the controversial Hay’s Code restrictions were relaxed, that they came out in full force.

With Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a masterpiece of that particular subgenre, celebrating its 30th anniversary recently, it seems like a great opportunity to check out some of the best Revisionist Western offerings the new century has had to offer…

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Based on a 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard, the tale concerns a drought-impoverished rancher who agrees to take on a risky job of escorting a notorious outlaw to justice. The first adaptation of the property was back in 1957, headlined by actors Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. However, the remake helmed by James Mangold featuring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale is my preferred version.

Crowe exudes an infectious charm as gang leader Wade, and Bale gives a restrained yet multilayered performance as the crippled farmer Evans. Filled with gun-blazing shootouts, Peckinpah-esque violence and an engrossing as hell narrative, 3:10 to Yuma truly is one of the finest Revisionist Westerns to hit cinemas in this new century.

Django Unchained (2012)

This Quentin Tarantino flick was a major hit with the critics and made a killing at that year’s Academy Awards, and rightly so. The blood-soaked revenge drama, which sees a freed slave travel to Mississippi to rescue his kidnapped wife from a brutal plantation owner, is chock full of top-notch performances across the board, with Christoph Waltz’s brilliantly hilarious Dr. King Schultz being the clear standout.

Jamie Foxx ably assists Waltz as the titular Django while Leonardo DiCaprio is despicably villainous as the ruthless Calvin Candie. Top it off with a heavy dose of social commentary, unbridled blood-letting and Tarantino’s trademark dialogue, and we have quite the thrilling ride with Django Unchained.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Over the years Andre Dominic has carved a niche for himself as an auteur filmmaker. And nothing exemplifies it better than this sprawling epic of a Western, with its equally lengthy title. A deliberate slow burn, which deconstructs the mythical persona of Jesse James in a manner never before put on celluloid, the film can best be described as one of the most visually sumptuous, performance driven Revisionist Westerns of all time.

Brad Pitt is uncharacteristically pensive and subdued as the enigmatic Jesse James, and Casey Affleck is utterly believable as crazily obsessed Robert Ford. But the real star of this captivating drama is the jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography courtesy of DOP Roger Deakins. It’s simply out of this world, in every sense of the word.

True Grit (2010)

Similar to 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, which is based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, also had a previous adaptation back in 1969 starring the legendary John Wayne. In this take directed by the Coen Brothers, touted as a more faithful take on the source material, we see that the irreverent humor is retained but the overall proceedings have taken on a darker tone, literally.

Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cockburn is still a vibrant dipsomaniac but he’s far scruffier than John Wayne’s’ squeaky clean version. Embodying the role of the tough-as-nails Mattie Ross, a teenager seeking retribution for her father’s murder, is the vivacious Hailee Steinfeld in her breakout big screen role. Exemplary production values, gorgeous scenery and haunting score add further value to this mesmerizing cinematic experience.

The Revenant (2015)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant had a lengthy and arduous journey from book to screen. But the efforts of all involved were rewarded handsomely by some much deserved success at the box office, as well as, during awards season. The survival adventure drama led by the uber-talented Leonard DiCaprio, went on to nab several Academy Awards in the top categories including directing for Iñárritu and acting for DiCaprio.

It is a harrowing tale based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same title which describes frontiersman Hugh Glass’s experiences in 1823. Featuring a duet of ferociously visceral performances courtesy of DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, visually striking imagery and a story that is equal parts bleak and poignant, The Revenant is essential viewing for all fans of modern Revisionist Westerns.

The Proposition (2005)

Aussie cinema is something of an acquired taste, but those who have had a taste of it know how good it actually is. Set in the arid, dust chocked plains of the Outback, The Proposition is a primal, unforgiving tale of a notorious outlaw at the mercy of a lawman who gives him nine days to kill his elder brother. Failure to do so, would mean the death of the younger brother. A dreary proposition indeed.

Armed with an enviable ensemble cast which includes thespians such as Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and John Hurt, with a script churned by musician turned screenwriter Nick Cave, director John Hillcoat gives audiences a rare, uncompromising glimpse into the brutal life of 19th century Australia. A movie you cannot turn away from.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

I’m a fan of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but my God, S. Craig Zahler’s gleefully demented and outrageously violent Bone Tomahawk is just something else. Initially Zahler wanted to adapt his own novel Wraiths of the Broken Land, but became doubtful if he’d be able to pull it off on a low-budget. So, he wrote a rescue Western which acts a sequel to the book, and that’s what Bone Tomahawk is all about.

The film is a fairly straightforward Western, involving a kidnapping by cannibalistic tribesmen, but its strong horror overtones is something that cannot be ignored. And did I mention the stacked cast it has? Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and the list goes on. Can’t go wrong with talent like that, and the movie sure as hell doesn’t disappoint.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Probably the least action centric Western on this list, The Power of the Dog is more psychological drama than anything else. But it is still very much a Revisionist Western through and through. Helmed and written by famed New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, who previously made waves with 1993’s The Piano, this sensational film benefits immensely from the powerful performances dished out by lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch and the talented supporting cast of Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Cumberbatch is downright terrifying and intimidating as the homophobic rancher Phil Burbank, dominating every scene he’s in. A deeply introspective and thought-provoking affair, The Power of the Dog is one of those rare films that will leave an indelible impression on you by the time you’re done with it.

The Homesman (2014)

Veteran Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones juggles multiple roles for this Revisionist Western, being in front of and behind the camera, whilst engaging in scripting duties. But he doesn’t drop the ball in either of those fronts, managing to deliver a bleak-as-hell drama that capitalizes on the acting chops of its insanely gifted female led cast.

The film’s portrayal of the harsh, unforgiving conditions early settlers had to endure as frontiersman is both uncompromising and realistic. For those of us pining to be born in another era, think again. Because, the 19th century American Midlands isn’t a place you wanna be, especially if you were a woman. And The Homesman is a rare film that explores the gruelling reality lead by women of that hard time period.

Old Henry (2021)

Indie darling Tim Blake Nelson has, in the past, dipped his boots in the Western genre from time to time, but damn, his powerhouse of a performance here is truly one for the ages. Emotionally raw and unrestrainedly ferocious in unison, Nelson’s work in this underrated gem is certainly one of his best in years and that’s saying something.

Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli keeps the story simple but impactful, allowing his talented performers to shine. Stephen Dorff who plays the big bad, is a nasty piece of work, who shoots first and asks questions later. Naturally, tempers flare, shootouts occur and the dead bodies start racking up. In conclusion, Old Henry is a gritty, no-holds-barred Revisionist Western that harks back to some of Eastwood’s best work, and that’s the highest compliment I can give it.

Open Range (2003)

In 1990 Kevin Costner crafted the quintessential Western epic Dances with Wolves, which singlehandedly revitalized the Western genre of filmmaking in Hollywood. A little over a decade later, Costner once again returns to the roots that made him who he is, with 2003’s Open Range.

While less grand and ambitious in scope than his directorial debut, Open Range is nevertheless a solid modern Western inspired by the classics of its genre. The slow burn drama is bedecked with glorious wide shots that capture the sparsely populated expanses, picturesque scenery and the gut-wrenching gun violence. Both Costner and Robert Duvall are in top form here, embracing their characters with gusto and vigor, and their relationship is the beating heart of this thoroughly satisfying, good old-fashioned yarn.

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird (2008)

Inspired by Sergio Leone’s legendary Spaghetti Western epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this flick coming from South Korea is something of a doozy. The twisty-turny plot is at times hard to follow, but the stark-raving-mad action sequences holds the incoherent narrative together making it an absolute blast from start to finish.

The Good, the Bad and the Weird owes a lot to other movies in the genre, yes, but its inventiveness and sheer chutzpah keeps things engaging and refreshing. Throw in a damn fine motley crew of Korean actors into the mix and we get an incendiary brew that is all sorts of awesome.

The Harder They Fall (2021)

This Netflix production has a touch of Quentin Tarantino and a hint of Spike Lee about it, but for the most part attempts to do something different and put a fresh spin on a time-worn template. A blood spattering, sharply written revenge drama, The Harder They Fall is British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel’s feature film directorial debut.

Jeymes conceived of the story as well, drawing inspiration from real life black outlaws, cowboys and lawmen of the 19th century American West. It’s a stylish blitzkrieg of a genre film featuring an all-Black ensemble of Hollywood heavy-hitters, that plays to its strengths and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. And sometimes that’s more than enough.

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

French director Jacques Audiard’s efforts are well thought out introspective dramas, which focus on characters more than narrative. Because of this he’d become something of a favourite in international film festivals, with movies like 2009’s A Prophet and 2015’s Dheepan. The latter even walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or during the Cannes Film Festival held that year. Therefore, when the talented creative decided to tackle a Western, people were curious as to what he’d do.

The staggering ensemble cast of John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed ably assist Audiard in his endeavour, doing justice to the material they’ve been given and then some. Surprisingly funny and unexpectedly emotional, The Sisters Brothers is a fascinating watch with great rewatchable value.

The Salvation (2014)

Ever since he gained worldwide recognition for playing the main antagonist in the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, Mads Mikkelsen’s meteoric rise has been unstoppable. The gifted Danish actor career spans mainstream and indie affairs, incorporating a wide array of genres. So, it’s unsurprising to see the chap headlining a Western with 2014’s The Salvation.

Mikkelsen just can’t churn out a bad performance, even if he tried, and the same goes for his effort here, which is nuanced and introspective. The scene stealer in this flick is Jefferey Dean Morgan, who plays the abhorrent over-the-top villain of this genre piece. Worth seeing? Definitely.

What are your favourite Revisionist Westerns? What have we missed from this list? Be sure to let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…

Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.


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