The western is one of cinema’s finest genres. It has become some-what clear in the passing years that the western is not perhaps at the height of what it used to be (in terms of success and buzz, not quality). So, this article is dedicated to my personal love of the western genre. I will review in-short, the films of recent years that I’ve seen and have stuck with me.
However, contrary to the box office success of westerns of recent (barring Tarantino’s work, as they did very well), the quality has kept rising. Filmmakers have contunied building off of the classic westerns; Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and later, Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
There are a few notable films missing, that is simply because I haven’t gotten round to seeing them. That includes; True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 3:10 to Yuma.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen’s Oscar-winning western is unlike no other, it explores the fragility of life, with an evident contrast in the blunt-yet-fast killing of Bardem’s character to the slow deterioration of everyone else becoming old men. It is blunt, brutal and heavily philosophical in its themes and exploration of its specific characters. Fate arrives as the hunter becomes the hunted, Anton’s collision is symbolic of the generations passing by, he becomes part of the ‘old men’, this is why justice is not served, he is simply an old man and what lies ahead for him is no country for old men.
The Coen Brothers’ vision was quite simply visionary, and still is. Shot by Roger Deakins, this also is one of the best-looking westerns to ever grace cinema. No Country for Old Men has gone down in the record books and will continue to do so, as more and more visit it for the first time.
Django Unchained (2012)
One of my all time favourites, Django Unchained, finds an elegant balance in the exploration of the horrors of slavery. Whilst still being the well-oiled Tarantino machine that as usual makes for sheer entertainment. It is a film of historical authenticity, never shying away from the very-real untouched fragments of slavery, like; mandigo fighting.
The film stylistically portrays Django’s quest for his beloved, showing the adventures of a black bounty hunter killing white folks for money… What’s not to love about that? There is a matching of Tarantino’s talents of telling excellent stories to the story that is desired in this fairy-tale-like revenge tale. It highlights Tarantino at the height of his masterful powers, showing a clear love for Leone and western filmmakers of before.
Django Unchained is bold, hysterical, entertaining, brutal and daring, it is another masterpiece from the present-master of the western, Quentin Tarantino.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
S. Craig Zahler is a name to not forget, his work is absolutely nothing-short of masterful. Bone Tomahawk is a sincerely superb western, full of grit, tension, ace-writing and jaw-dropping moments. It’s a peculiar mix that finds a fine balance, with it being based in the western, yet evoking a strong connection to horror.
Macabre, dire and hopelessness, these are themes scattered throughout. Zahler puts you in a some-what old-fashioned seat, exploring the western through the scope of the journey. It finds its gold in the razor-sharp screenwriting and direction of Zahler, honing ace performances all-around.
Never far away is that special sense of dread, the inevitability of their fates become blatant from the very-opening with the tone being bluntly set. Zahler’s brutality is unflinching and uncensored, a strong admiration is felt for feeling of purpose in the violent acts, nothing is done willy-nilly.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Like Django Unchained, Tarantino again dove into his love for the western with The Hateful Eight. Razor-sharp, witty, suspenseful and violent, it marks the signature Tarantino blend of style and substance. Shot on 70mm, there is a real sense of control unlike any other film. No zoom-lenses were used, Tarantino utilised 70mm lenses to heighten the scope, grain and colour, whilst building a sheer sense of the unknown whilst the orchestrated tensions rose.
Influenced by Tarantino’s love for TV westerns, specifically the ones with ‘guest-stars’. He took the idea of having a group of strangers together in a tension-filled situation, whilst all the while sticking you in the middle, unknowing who to trust or to sympathise with. Tarantino’s constant dangling of the dreaded notion of violence is what keeps the pace rolling, but also his dialogue, it’s almost as if it were written as a novel.
The routing in genre acts as a way to heighten the pinprick sense of fear and dread in this masterful film from Quentin Tarantino, whilst also owing an awful lot to the exquisitely-twisted performances from his as-per-usual all-star ensemble.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The film tells the tale of a range of short-stories, with a consistent collection linked by thematic themes that simmer throughout. This is the Coens at their finest, with each chapter routed in the western, what is explored are varying tales. Tales with a little story, stories that connect, yet turn over the page to continue anew.
It is a strikingly perfect mesh of black humour, genre exploration and unforgiving-drama. The simmering theme of death is what connects all, the final chapter stands-out as you begin to uncover the meaning for all that had come before. Like No Country for Old Men, there is a comment on the inevitability of death, with the two figures representing grim reapers, who drag corpses up into the very-much-so symbolic staircase of light.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is elegant, poetic and blunt in its exploration of the links between varying lives. Backed by the jaw-dropping cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, this film is a perfectly oiled masterpiece that only the Coens could make.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
The winner of best director at Venice, Jacques Audiard’s vision is utterly impeccable and absolutely immersive – a modern western destined to be a classic. It’s a warped dream of the western that successfully subverts and delivers a ravishingly beautiful spectacle. Unlike many westerns, what really propels The Sisters Brothers is the innocence, melancholy and contrasting desires that are explored.
There is a real mix of drama, comedy and heart, all seen within every frame. The unrelenting spark-filled gunfire acts as blunt enforcement, showing the harshness of the life destiny has lead them on. John C Reilly and Joaquin Pheonix deliver Oscar-worthy performances proving them to be some of the world’s greatest talent. They capture nuance in Audiard’s fluctuating needs of emotion, comparing where they began to the end is a grand example.
The Sisters Brothers is an unconventional western that masterfully tells the tale of male melancholy and desires. It is a ravishing spectacle to feast upon, whilst also being as rich as can be.
To conclude, over the past decade (or so), the western genre has added some magnificently brilliant additions that highlight qualities of old and new. Developing unconventional and twisted takes on a already-rich genre. The western is far from dead, I implore you to seek out these examples.
Written by Ben Rolph
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