From epic streaming series to art-house masterpieces, we’re ranking the westerns that have stood out the most so far this century.
Don’t heed the doom and gloom of pessimists: Westerns are alive and well and thriving on multiple platforms in the 21st century. The only catch is, many of them don’t look or sound much like the Saturday matinee horse operas of yesteryear.
These days, the term “western” is sufficiently inclusive to accommodate both period dramas and contemporary stories, reassuringly old-fashioned oaters and violently revisionist shoot’em-ups. Indeed, when you say “western,” you may not be referencing a movie at all. Rather, you might be talking about weekly or limited-run TV series on broadcast, cable, or streaming outlets.
But the unmistakable and indomitable spirit of the classic western can still be savored on screens of all sizes, in narratives of various lengths. To demonstrate, we’ve corralled a wide range of westerns — many of them enthusiastically recommended by our readers on social media — that have premiered since 2001.
1. Hell on Wheels (2011—2016)
It started out as an impressively gritty but undeniably formulaic revenge drama, following Confederate Army veteran Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) on a vengeance trail as his pursuit of the rogue Union soldiers who killed his wife and son takes him to the moving-westward construction sites of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Over the course of five eventful seasons on the AMC network, however, Hell on Wheels evolved gradually and engrossingly into a full-scale, multifaceted, and multicultural epic quite unlike anything seen before or since on American television. Bohannon’s sometimes purposeful, sometimes accidental transition from obsessed executioner out for blood to historical bit player seeking a shot at redemption propelled the narrative toward a resolution both genuinely surprising and immensely satisfying. And the beauty of Anson Mount’s remarkable lead performance was his adamant refusal — and that of the show’s producers — to insist that his character always be easily likable. (On at least two occasions, Bohannon had to kill friends to put them out of their misery.)
Of course, it also helped immeasurably that, during his long journey, he interacted with such megatalented costars as Colm Meaney as Thomas “Doc” Durant, the often insolvent wheeler-dealer who’s driven to complete the railroad on his terms, under his control; rapper-turned-actor Common as Elam Ferguson, an ex-slave determined to reinvent himself as a proud freeman while working as a railroad employee; and Christopher Heyerdahl as the conniving psychopath known as The Swede, who repeatedly insists, even while plotting to destroy Bohannon, that they have more in common than Bohannon would ever admit. The scary thing was, you could never be absolutely sure The Swede was wrong.
2. Open Range (2003)
Call it a match made in western movie lover’s heaven, and you won’t be far off the mark. C&I reader favorites and frequent cover guys Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall were perfectly cast in this well-nigh irresistible shoot‘em-up — an artfully crafted and unabashedly old-fashioned sagebrush saga very much in the classical tradition of Shane, Red River, and Rio Bravo — as veteran cattle drivers who ride into danger while resting their herd near a small frontier town.
Duvall effortlessly conveys weathered gravitas as Boss Spearman, the peaceable senior partner in the enterprise, while Costner (who also served as director) amps the tension as Charley Waite, a slow-to-anger fellow with a history of violence. When two members of their small outfit are victimized by the henchmen of a despotic rancher (Michael Gambon), Boss asks Charley to join him on a mission of vengeance. Charley hesitates — unlike Boss, he has hard-won, first-hand knowledge of what happens when serious shooting starts — but ultimately agrees to fight the good fight. Even if that fight might cost him the love of Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the compassionate sister of the town’s doctor.
3. Deadwood (2004—2006)
You may be greatly relieved, or seriously disappointed, to learn that we have no intention of quoting some of the more, ahem, colorful bits of dialogue (peppered with fusillades of F-bombs) that were a hallmark of this down-and-dirty HBO western series created by David Milch. After all, many traditionalists — including, as he revealed in a 2004 C&I interview, Maverick star James Garner — were quite offended by the salty language and bawdy behavior in the show.
But for those of us who appreciated its brazenly warts-and-all vision of life, death, and the frequently contentious course of community-building in the eponymous South Dakota mining town during the 1870s, the gutter talk and gross excess were intrinsic elements of its appeal. While witnessing the interactions among flinty sheriff and businessman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), foul-mouthed saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and other vividly drawn characters, you couldn’t help thinking: If there had been no censors around to keep things family-friendly, would Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp have behaved like this in the golden age of TV westerns?
4. Appaloosa (2008)
Back in 2005, Robert B. Parker, the author best known for his thrillers featuring the Boston-based private eye Spenser, surprised many of his faithful readers with the publication of Appaloosa, the first in his series of western novels about freelance lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. But as Parker told C&I at the time, he didn’t see much distance between detective thrillers and westerns. Indeed, when he wrote his doctoral dissertation for his Ph.D. in English literature, he noted that critic Leslie Fiedler “once said something like, ‘The private eye is merely the cowboy dismounted and moving gracefully through the streets of the city.’ I agree.”
With a similar degree of no-sweat self-assurance, Ed Harris shouldered the double duties of director and star while bringing Parker’s story to the screen, turning the spirited page-turner into an uncommonly well-crafted western drama that found Cole (Harris) and Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) tangling with a tyrannical rancher (Jeremy Irons) — and nearly divided by a femme fatale (Renée Zellweger) — in the New Mexico town of the title.
5. Longmire (2012—2017)
During its six-season run on the A&E Network and Netflix, and continuing in streaming reruns on the latter outlet, Longmire — based on the novel franchise by Craig Johnson — has attracted and maintained a loyal following for its inspired and addictive mix of modern-day western, character-driven serial, and murder-mystery crime drama. At the center of it all: Walt Longmire (authoritatively played by Robert Taylor), the veteran sheriff of Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County who does his best to keep the peace while tending to emotional wounds with occasional help from longtime friend Henry Standing Bear (the charismatic Lou Diamond Phillips), owner-operator of the Red Pony, a saloon-restaurant where Henry always hopes that everyone will have a beautiful day.
6. Broken Trail (2006)
Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church shine in this exceptional made-for-cable movie directed by Walter Hill (The Long Riders, Geronimo: An American Legend ) as two cowboys — Prent Ritter and his nephew Tom Harte — who set out to drive horses from Oregon to Wyoming, where they plan to sell the steeds to the British Army. Along the way, they save five young Chinese women who had been sold into slavery as prostitutes and a more experienced, badly mistreated shady lady (Greta Scacchi). Naturally, no good deed goes unpunished, and the cowboys find themselves pursued by the minions of a vengeful madam.
7. Justified (2010—2015)
Author Elmore Leonard invented Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. Marshal who dispenses rough justice after being reassigned to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, but Deadwood alumnus Timothy Olyphant made the character entirely his own throughout six seasons of the must-see modern-day western that originally aired on the FX Network. Chief among the antagonists he pursued: Crime-family matriarch Mags Bennett (Emmy Award-winner Margo Martindale), who serves poison-spiked “apple pie” moonshine to anyone impeding her enterprises; Detroit mobster Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), who tries to survive and thrive after being exiled to Kentucky by his underworld overlords; and Avery Markham (Sam Elliott — yes, that Sam Elliott), a legendary gangster who aims to put Raylan on his hit list. But Raylan’s most formidable foe, Boyd Crowder, a childhood friend turned tenacious enemy flamboyantly played by Walton Goggins, almost didn’t make it past the pilot episode. It was only after preview audiences objected to his being killed that the producers wised up to the idea that, hey, they ought to keep him around. Smart move.
8. Wind River (2017)
Hell or High Water scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan claimed his place in the director’s chair with this furiously mournful yet ultimately hopeful contemporary drama about an investigation into the murder of a young Native American woman near a Wyoming reservation. Just about every scene in the film is spot-on perfect, and the standout supporting players include Elizabeth Olsen as a rookie FBI agent, Graham Greene as the local tribal police chief, and a pre-Yellowstone Kelsey Asbille as the murder victim seen in flashbacks. But the most affecting moments in the film focus on extended conversations between lead player Jeremy Renner as a soul-wounded animal tracker pressed into service as a manhunter and Gil Birmingham as the grieving father of the woman whose death sparks the manhunt.
9. The Missing (2003)
Ron Howard’s arresting western is a powerfully effective piece of work, obviously inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers — John Wayne’s final line in that classic is echoed here by a major character — but well worth appreciating for its own considerable merits. Tommy Lee Jones is terrific as a grizzled loner who comes to the aid of his estranged daughter (an equally impressive Cate Blanchett) when one of her daughters (Evan Rachel Wood of HBO’s Westworld ) is kidnapped by renegades who specialize in selling nubile girls into slavery south of the border.
10. Hell or High Water (2016)
On one hand, we have two West Texas brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), who are so desperate to save their family farm from foreclosure that they conduct a series of increasingly risky bank robberies. On the other hand, we have Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a veteran Texas Ranger, and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner, who are hell-bent on ending the Howards’ crime wave. Working from an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, director David Mackenzie neatly balances sound and fury with heart and soul as he entwines the fates of his four lead characters in a gripping modern western.
11. Godless (2017)
Costars Jeff Daniels and Merritt Wever received Emmy Awards for their layered performances in writer-director Scott Frank’s binge-worthy limited-run series set in La Belle, New Mexico, a Wild West town populated primarily by women in the wake of a mining accident that killed most of the menfolk. After turning against his mentor, Frank Griffin (Daniels), the vicious leader of an outlaw gang, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) seeks refuge from his vengeful former partner in La Belle. But when Griffin and his band of bad hombres show up in search of Goode, well, sometimes women like rancher Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) and feisty widow Mary Agnes McNue (Wever) have to do what women have to do.
12. The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Previously seen as costars in director Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001), Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke joined forces again for Fuqua’s exciting remake of John Sturges’ classic 1960 western (which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai). Washington, effectively cast as the master gunfighter originally played by Yul Brynner, and Hawke, taking over Robert Vaughn’s part as a self-doubting dandy, rode alongside Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier as bounty hunters gathered to save the citizenry of a small town from the cronies of a ruthless robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard).
13. Crossfire Trail (2001)
In 1990, Tom Selleck and Lonesome Dove director Simon Wincer memorably collaborated for C&I reader favorite Quigley Down Under. So expectations were high when they reteamed more than a decade later for this adaptation of a Louis L’Amour novel. The good news: Expectations were not just met but surpassed in this excellent oater about a gruff but noble drifter (Selleck, of course) who makes good on his promise to a dying man that he’ll look after the luckless fellow’s widow (Virginia Madsen) and Wyoming ranch. Selleck is as effortlessly commanding as always, but the big surprise here is seeing Mark Harmon (NCIS) cast against type as a two-faced, back-shooting land-grabber.
14. The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)
Five years after earning his spurs with Dead Man’s Burden (2012), writer-director Jared Moshe once again proved he has the right stuff to keep westerns alive with this richly entertaining, beautifully photographed, and satisfyingly old-fashioned drama with an arresting twist: The grizzled sidekick (Bill Pullman) of a Wild West legend (Peter Fonda) must go gunning for justice on his own when that legend is killed. Pullman is nothing short of superb as Lefty Brown, a lifelong underachiever who’s painfully aware of his own limitations, yet determined to transcend them through sheer force of will.
15. Hostiles (2017)
Director Scott Cooper — who guided Jeff Bridges through his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart (2009) — served as ramrod for this stirringly powerful revisionist western with another outstanding lead performance. Christian Bale of 3:10 to Yuma starred to perfection with a subtly nuanced and implosive performance as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, a war-hardened cavalry officer who, on the eve of his retirement, is ordered to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family from the New Mexico fort where they’ve been imprisoned to their ancestral lands in Montana.
16. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Love him or hate him, you have to admit this about Quentin Tarantino: The guy loves him some westerns. After shaking up the genre with his ultra-violent revenge drama Django Unchained (2012) and before he cast Leonardo DiCaprio as a faded TV western star desperate to jumpstart his career in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019), he concocted this brutally inventive (and inventively brutal) Wild West version of a Ten Little Indians scenario. Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins (of Justified), Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michael Madsen are among the “strangers” trapped together by a blizzard in a remote stagecoach station.
17. True Grit (2010)
Here’s that rare remake that really deserves to be called a “re-imagining.” Rather than merely replicate the 1969 original with the inimitable John Wayne, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen wrote and directed an equally enjoyable but conspicuously more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ picaresque 1968 novel about the redoubtable Mattie Ross (played here by Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl who seeks revenge for her father’s killer, and grizzled lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role), who joins Mattie and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) in tracking down the murderous “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
18. Yellowstone (2018—Present)
It’s tempting to describe the smash-hit Paramount Network series as a twisted update of Bonanza with a sociopathic Pa Cartwright leading a dysfunctional family of similarly amoral offspring. But it’s a lot more fun to simply wallow in the audaciously entertaining excess of this contemporary drama from producer Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River), and to appreciate the full-bodied performances of the exceptional ensemble cast headed by Kevin Costner as John Dutton, patriarch of a clan that owns a humongous cattle ranch that makes the Ponderosa look downright puny.
19. Forsaken (2015)
Kiefer Sutherland (Young Guns) costarred with his legendary father Donald Sutherland in this pleasingly retrograde sagebrush saga, which proved to be unabashedly sincere in its embrace of western conventions and archetypes. Kiefer plays a notorious gunslinger who returns to his Wyoming hometown in 1872 with plans for a peaceful life. Donald is his dad, a preacher who’s skeptical of his prodigal son’s reformation. Both men are challenged by a greedy land-grabber played by Brian Cox of HBO’s Succession.
20. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
The second film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s classic 1953 short story — masterfully directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) — brings out the best in lead players Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as, respectively, a cash-strapped farmer who reluctantly joins the deputies charged with escorting a notorious outlaw to a prison-bound train, and the bad guy whose gang of even worse guys aim to rescue their boss. But wait, there’s more: The late, great Peter Fonda has a choice supporting role as a crusty Pinkerton obsessed with bringing Crowe’s charming villain to justice.
21. Monte Walsh (2003)
Tom Selleck and director Simon Wincer teamed for a third time to make this affectingly melancholy western, based on a novel by Jack Schaefer (Shane), about a middle-aged cowboy who knows his way of life is drawing to a close but can’t figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Selleck gives one of his finest performances in the title role, and he’s never been more engaging than he is here in scenes opposite the prostitute (Isabella Rossellini) who loves the incorrigible cowpoke. Better still, the final scene is guaranteed to leave you smiling, if not laughing out loud.
Photography: Courtesy Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo, Sportsphoto, Buena Vista/Photofest, MPTV/New Line Cinema/Lorey Sebastian, Lantern Entertainment, Lorey Sebastian, James Minchin/Netflix, Moviestore Collection LTD, Joey L./Entertainment Studios, Paramount Pictures
From our May/June 2020 issue.