The Western genre saw moviegoers through the tough post-WWII years of the 50s and into the 1960s. It may have waned in popularity over the next few decades, but there have been a number of innovative twists and turns since then that have brought us firmly into the age of the neo-Western. Looking at the era stretching from 1980 until now, here are 20 unexpected Westerns brought to you by directors that may surprise you.
20 Dead Man (1995) – Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 black-and-white Western manages to still be surprising from a director who can’t stop surprising us. Johnny Depp played William Blake, a mild accountant fleeing from an accidental murder in the 1800s. He takes a psychedelic journey during which he meets a very Jarmusch cast of characters including a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who thinks Blake is the poet reincarnated, a cannibal/bounty hunter (Lance Henriksen), the cross-dressing Sally (Iggy Pop) and friend Big George (Billy Bob Thornton), and even Robert Mitchum in his last film role. It’s a movie that’s heavy on poetry that still maintains that Jarmusch punk rock/outsider vibe, as well as the loneliness of the classic Western.
19 Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Ang Lee
Part of the surprise of Brokeback Mountain is that it was adapted from a very slight 1997 short story by Annie Proulx with the help of Larry McMurtry to up the cowboy credentials. On the other side of the 2005 film, Ang Lee directed Hulk and Lust, Caution, two films about as different from a Western as you can get. But Lee’s delicate, sensitive touch with the subject matter of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) falling uneasily in love was what made the movie such a success.
Lee’s treatment of the subjects of homosexuality, loneliness, and masculinity is nothing less than masterful, along with the beautiful performances he got from his lead actors.
18 Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) – Takashi Miike
Takashi Miike has long been the beloved bad boy of Japanese cinema, putting out films heavy on violence, gore, and shock value (Audition, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q) interspersed with wacky family films (The Happiness of the Katakuris) and kid-friendly action (The Great Yokai War). This 2007 Western was stepping out on a limb even for him, with a cast of Japanese actors reciting their lines in English.
It’s an homage to spaghetti Westerns with a samurai spin, set in the midst of a war between the Heike and Genji gangs, and featuring a nameless gunman who teams up with a prostitute to exact revenge. It’s a wild, over-the-top pastiche of genres that could only work in Miike’s hands.
17 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – George Roy Hill
We think of it as a tried and true classic now, but upon its release in 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was unlike any other Western audiences had seen. It was laugh-out-loud funny, for starters, and was accompanied by a Burt Bacharach score. The pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was nothing less than genius, and inspired director George Roy Hill to put the two together again in 1973’s The Sting.
The relationship between Butch and Sundance is only made richer by the addition of Sundance’s girl, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), as they travel down to Bolivia, intent on robbing banks while they escape justice, only to find that they are ever closer to their doom.
16 The Harder They Fall (2021) – Jeymes Samuel
Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, a singer-songwriter, made his directorial debut with a star-studded Western that had an all-Black cast and a genre-crossing, critically acclaimed soundtrack. The story is based loosely on a number of historical characters, including Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), Rufus Black (Idris Elba), and Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beats), telling the story of how Love sought revenge against Black 20 years after he killed Love’s parents. It’s a fresh and energetic western and a more than impressive debut from a musician who used his musical skills to enhance the film’s brash vitality.
15 The Power of the Dog (2021) – Jane Campion
New Zealand director Jane Campion has been known for her female-centric films, from An Angel at My Table and The Piano to The Portrait of a Lady and the television series Top of the Lake. So audiences were taken aback when she decided to direct a movie about toxic masculinity in a Western setting. But rather than letting the vicious Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) eat up all the screen time, in typical Campion style, she ensured that Kirsten Dunst’s Rose was an effective enough character to hold her own in terms of interest. Nevertheless, it still feels like a bit of an outlier in terms of Campion’s career.
14 Cowboys & Aliens (2011) – Jon Favreau
A 2006 graphic novel was the jumping-off point for Jon Favreau’s 2011 science fiction Western. A town named Absolution in 1870s New Mexico collides with an alien invasion, fought off by Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde. Outlaws, amnesiacs, cattlemen, preachers, and bandits must work together, and Favreau worked hard to figure out what kind of reactions the townspeople might have had to what is much more of a 20th or 21st-century scenario of an alien takeover. The genre-blending didn’t necessarily work as smoothly as hoped, but the acting and special effects provided the film’s highlights.
13 For Greater Glory (2012) – Dean Wright
Director Dean Wright is largely known for his visual effects work on The Lord of the Rings movies, but in 2012 he directed this historical epic (also known as Cristiada and Outlaws), about the Cristero War in Mexico in the 1920s. Starring Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Oscar Isaac, and Peter O’Toole in the final film to come out while he was still alive, it’s about a bloody time of religious persecution, and a war that few Americans are familiar with.
The 1917 Constitution of Mexico was pretty anti-Catholic, which resulted in a rash of country-wide violence against the institution of the Catholic Church, although many rights were officially restored in 1929.
12 The Salvation (2014) – Kristian Levring
A Western is not necessarily what one is expecting from one of the original founders of the Dogme95 movement, but Kristian Levring’s The Salvation is the story of a Dane who emigrates to the US after a defeat at the hands of the Germans in the 1860s. Part of the reason this films works is the casting of the always-excellent Mads Mikkelsen as the title character, Jon. It takes years to bring his wife and son over as well, and when he does, they are brutally killed during an attack on their stagecoach, and Jon becomes a familiar sort of western character: the vengeful loner.
Filmed in South Africa, it’s a bleak, sparse film with Jon pursuing his family’s killer, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) across an unforgiving countryside.
11 Bone Tomahawk (2015) – S. Craig Zahler
S. Craig Zahler took a somewhat circuitous route to directorhood, first working as a novelist and heavy metal drummer. But he managed to score Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox for his 2015 debut, which was met with critical acclaim (he also contributed to the soundtrack). It’s incredibly violent, definitely verging over into horror at times, with Russell starring as a sheriff who must lead a posse unto unknown territory to rescue several people from a cannibal tribe of Native Americans (nicknamed “The Troglodytes”).
It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you can get through it, it’s a fresh and innovative take on the genre.
10 Hell or High Water (2016) – David Mackenzie
Before he wrote the smash hit TV show Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan wrote David Mackenzie’s 2016 neo-Western. Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are so desperate to save their family’s ranch and resort to robbing banks. A couple of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are assigned to the case, and the cat and mouse game leads to violence and obsession.
The overall feeling is of desperation in a place that already feels pretty desperate, hot and sweaty, and dirty, without all that much worth saving. The movie was well-received, with Pine and Bridges singled out for their performances, and possibly a portent of things to come from Sheridan.
9 The Sisters Brothers (2018) – Jacques Audiard
Based on a Patrick deWitt novel, The Sisters Brothers was French auteur Jacques Audiard’s first English language movie. Famous for gritty, hard-hitting, award-winning films like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and Dheepan, a comedic western about two hitman brothers with the last name of Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) was maybe not an obvious choice for Audiard, and the gamble resulted in disappointment at the box office.
The acting still came in for critical acclaim, with the brothers hot on the trail of a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his gold-hunting partner John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The movie is certainly enjoyable, but admittedly has a hard time settling on its genre.
8 The Claim (2000) – Michael Winterbottom
In a brilliant move, Michael Winterbottom took the Thomas Hardy classic, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and relocated the premises from England to California. Peter Mullan plays an Irish immigrant who made good during the gold rush and now owns the town of Kingdom Come along with all the businesses in it. But he hides a dark secret: he came into possession of his original gold claim some twenty years before by selling his wife and infant daughter.
The pair is now back, and his now-dying wife (Nastassja Kinski) wants him to take care of their daughter (Sarah Polley). The film was scored by composer Michael Nyman.
7 There Will Be Blood (2007) – Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson might not be that surprising a director for a Western, after all, he does love a long, sweeping epic. The surprising thing is how very much he was able to do with what many consider his masterpiece, the 2007 drama There Will Be Blood. Casting Daniel Day-Lewis as the film’s enigmatic, complicated center was certainly key to its success, but so was choosing Upton Sinclair’s Oil! as its starting point.
It’s the story of Daniel Plainview and his strange journey from lowly silver prospector to accidental adoptive father and cruel, wealthy alcoholic. The desert city of Marfa, Texas lent the film its desolate air, and Day-Lewis was supported by a strong double performance from Paul Dano as brothers who don’t agree about selling their oil-rich land to Plainview.
6 Appaloosa (2008) – Ed Harris
The 2008 Western is only Ed Harris’ second directorial effort, after the critically acclaimed Pollock in 2000. He again directed himself, this time as lawman Virgil Cole in a small town living in fear of local rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who’s already killed the town marshal. Viggo Mortensen plays Cole’s loyal deputy Everett Hitch, and he and Cole soon find themselves embroiled in a love triangle with widow Allie French (Renée Zellweger) while still trying to get Bragg out of their hair.
The film enjoyed a decent reception and praise for its performances.
5 The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (2008) – Kim Jee-Woon
Inspired by the spaghetti Western classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Kim Jee-Woon took the action out of America and dropped it into the desert of Manchuria just before the outbreak of WWII. The movie is packed with Korean stars, with Song Kang-ho playing ‘The Weird’, a thief, and Lee Byung-hun as ‘The Bad’, a hitman. A stolen treasure map changes hands a few times before Jung Woo-sung as ‘The Good’, a bounty hunter, is hot on the trail as well.
Add a group of bandits along with the Imperial Japanese Army, and you’ve got yourself a rip-roaring treasure hunt. The result is an energetic, sometimes manic homage, whipping up the action for a ridiculously fun Western.
4 The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Michael Mann
Michael Mann: known for crime thrillers like Heat and Thief. Daniel Day-Lewis: known for sensitive, emotional films like My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Phantom Thread. But put the two together and add James Fenimore Cooper’s actually not terribly exciting novel from 1826, and you’ve got a historical epic like none other. Day-Lewis’ Method approach means he was unexpectedly ripped as Nathaniel/Hawkeye, the white orphan who grew up with the dwindling Mohican tribe.
Geographically speaking, it might not be strictly a Western, set as it is in New York, but that was the American frontier at the time (1757), and westward expansion had to start somewhere. The cinematography is particularly exquisite, filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
3 Heaven’s Gate (1980) – Michael Cimino
Michael Cimino was fresh off the high of making 1978’s The Deer Hunter, which still stands for many as one of the best American films ever made, so it must have been a shock to come out with Heaven’s Gate just two years later and have it widely called one of the worst. The cast alone was good enough to cause that to be rethought years later: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges; and the plot is loosely modeled after the Johnson County War which took place in Wyoming in 1892, and served as the basis for a number of other Westerns as well, pitting cowboys and homesteaders against each other.
But production was a nightmare, and after running far over budget with his demands, Cimino’s initial cut of the film was a whopping 325 minutes, and the studio immediately refused, considering firing Cimino. The cut that was eventually released was still well over three hours long, and even after a re-cut and re-release the next year, there was nothing to be done to make the movie a success. But after over 40 years, critics are looking more favorably on a film that was once considered irretrievable, and it may be time for a reassessment.
2 The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) – Robert Redford
The 1988 film was Robert Redford’s second film, eight years after bona fide success with Ordinary People. This was a lighter, quieter story, about a man in a tiny town in New Mexico trying to save his meager beanfield and the town from government interests who are trying to divert the town’s water supply, which would effectively destroy the town. A farmer accidentally breaks a valve in frustration, which leads to a final face-off between the nefarious officials and the people of Milagro.
Sadly, the film wasn’t terribly well-received, but there are some really lovely moments, and it’s an interesting entry in Redford’s development as a renowned director.
1 In a Valley of Violence (2015) – Ti West
At this point, Ti West is one of the hottest horror directors around (The House of the Devil, X, Pearl, etc.) so his 2015 foray into the Western genre came as a surprise. Ethan Hawke starred as Paul, a drifter in the 1870s who gets into trouble with an unpleasant marshal’s deputy named Gilly (James Ransone), who takes a dislike to him and won’t let the matter go.
Several women complicate matters, along with John Travolta as U.S. Marshal Clyde Martin, who also happens to be Gilly’s father. There’s some talk that Travolta was miscast, but Hawke received positive reviews for his performance.