10 Great Modern Westerns that Didn’t Cost a Quarter Billion

We list off 10 modern Westerns produced in the last 25 years that prove the genre still gallops just fine when it isn't a CGI spectacle.

Aye, it is sad days for the Western. The genre, which was once Hollywood’s bread and butter, has long become a pariah in the movie industry. And despite Gore Verbinski aiming to do for the ol’ oaters what he did for swashbucklers in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Cruse of the Black Pearl, American audiences have taken The Lone Ranger out back behind the shed for an early franchise execution. The finger pointing is already beginning. The holiday weekend is not even over and stories are cropping up blaming the filmmakers, Johnny Depp dressed as a Native American and/or ousted former Disney Chairman Rich Ross for caving to pressure and greenlighting the project at a price tag of $215 million (after reshoots it reportedly ballooned up to at least $250 million). The one thing certain is that this is irrefutable proof that the Western is done. The Lone Ranger, Cowboys & Aliens and Wild Wild West crystallize a clear message: audiences are just as over with the genre as the boomers were in the ‘70s…. But let’s slow down this Monday (Sunday?) morning quarterbacking for a second. While it is evident that the Western will never again be the Hollywood staple and icon of wish fulfillment that it was 50 years ago, this does not mean Westerns are dead. In fact, they are still running and gunning just fine! Perhaps, a mass-entertainment blockbuster that costs a quarter of a billion dollars should never again be in the cards, but Westerns can still find audiences at the right scale without needing CGI bunnies or numerous derailing trains. Indeed, we at Den of Geek thought this would be the perfect time to holster our weapons for a minute and take a look at Ten MODERN Westerns (released within the last 25 years) that did the genre proud without breaking the bank.
 10. OPEN RANGE (2003)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $22 MILLION Kevin Costner is a man who clearly loves the stoic landscape of the Old West like he loves baseball and 3-hour movies. Luckily, Open Range represented more of a restrained mea culpa for the star and director who crafted an intimate character study that ran at a brisk pace (for Costner) while chronicling one of the most favored Western conflicts: the cowman and the rancher. In this story, Robert Duvall and Costner play a pair of over-the-hill Free Rangers who herd their cattle across the Northwest. Their crew includes youngins in need of education on how the old pros do it. Yet, even these elder badasses can see their way of life coming to an end. And it does in startling violence when the town of Harmonville’s local land baron (Michael Gambon) decides to teach a lesson to the grazers, which culminates with a beaten and dead employee. Duvall and Costner are fantastic as a pair of reluctant killers who put on the six-shooters one last time to demonstrate to Gambon’s Irishman how you get things done in the West. Costner even has time to romance Annette Bening on the side. A nice little portrait full of grisly violence and wistful panoramas that tripled its production costs at the worldwide box office.
9. TOMBSTONE (1993)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $25 MILLION When one conjures the single defining moment of order coming to the West, it is of three Earp brothers and family friend Doc Holiday walking to an empty lot near the OK Corral. It is a mythic image, in part because until the 20th century many lamented the strong-arm tactics of these U.S. Marshals as an abuse of power (the NRA would cry bloody murder today). However, it is a moment that has never been better realized onscreen than in 1993’s Tombstone. The following year had a very underrated and more historically accurate account of events in Wyatt Earp, with an authentic performance from Dennis Quaid as Holiday no less, but there is something larger-than-life and perfectly Hollywood about this actioner. And when it comes to the West, always print the legend. Wyatt Earp’s vengeance on his brother’s killer after the famed shootout takes on a wrathful Old Testament scope as he seemingly single-handedly frees the West from all rustlers, bandits and other nefarious cutthroats. But the real show is Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. The actor has never been better than as this smart mouthed Southern dandy with a mean fast hand.
8. THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $95 MILLION In what should have likely been The Lone Ranger’s biggest influence, this 15-year-old Western/swashbuckler is still a blast to watch. The practical effects driven blockbuster made for one of the liveliest ‘90s adventures, one that still holds up with genuinely happy-to-be-there performances from Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas. Banderas also earned special recognition for being the first Spanish actor to play Zorro, and play him well he does. His high-flying horse and sword histrionics cut a dashing figure across the California desert and his scenes with a star-making turn by Zeta-Jones positively sizzle off the celluloid. It is strange to consider that the screenplay was written in part by the same screenwriters of The Lone Ranger, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. It also was back in their pre-Curse of the Black Pearl success days, when scripts had to run under a respectable budget and restraint. For example this 8-figure budget pulled in a more than satisfying $250 million worldwide.
7. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $25 MILLION Okay, this may be set in 1980, but it is still most definitely a Western. A story about three men and a bag of money? Might as well ask Sergio Leone if he has heard about that set-up before. The simple premise is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a hoard of cash in the desert after a drug deal gone wrong. He does the stupid thing and takes it. The rest of the film is Moss paying for his sins, as he is pursued by the Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a movie monster straight from the mouth of Hell. There is also a good cop named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), but his virtue makes him a liability in these Texan badlands where all that matters is your tenacity to survive and take. And none can do so more ruthlessly or ponderously than the man in the ugly mop top with a cattle gun.
6. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $100 MILLION Another film that is arguably on the Western fence, this Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy is Deep Southern Fried Spaghetti. Set in the Antebellum South, Tarantino plays fast and loose with history to construct a Texas to Mississippi-land that is filled with gunslingers and very nice hats. Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed from his evil bonds by a helpful eccentric German dentist-turn-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), goes on a calculated warpath toward Candy Land. This plantation of pre-Confederate decadence holds his wife (Kerry Washington) in bondage and is run by the most deliciously evil tag-team in recent memory, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). It is a thrilling rush of ratcheting tension, hilarious dialogue and extravagant violence that deservedly won its Original Screenplay Oscar. It also won over $400 million worldwide, making it the most successful Western ever made (not counting inflation).
5. TRUE GRIT (2010)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $38 MILLION The Coen Brothers’ second stab at a Western was a more full-throated attempt than No Country. They even fill their hands with Hollywood iconography by re-adapting Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, which is already a 1969 cinema classic starring John Wayne. I will not attempt comparing the films (though there’s always a soft spot for Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn), but the 2010 iteration is a truly great modern film in its own right. A story of retribution in 1878 Arkansas, True Grit is the strangely sweet tale of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hounding her father’s killer (Josh Brolin) to the gates of Perdition, with some incidental help from her crotchety new father figure, drunk and overweight Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Along the way, they encounter colorful characters, like dandy Texas Ranger LeBouef (Matt Damon) and sinister Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), yet it is more the sentimental tale of a near-oprhaned girl becoming friends with a bitter lawman while on the road. And with little Coen flourishes like bear-cap wearing medicine men, it is a bit frontier scene chewing not to be missed.
4. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $22 MILLION This film has earned somewhat of a negative reputation in the many years since its release for (shamefully) beating Goodfellas at the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. However, do no not let the Academy’s mistakes take away from this film’s own magnificence. As a project that utilizes Kevin Costner’s best attributes—during a time when he did not believe he could play any part in any film—Dances With Wolves makes for a cathartic drama about a Civil War-broken man who goes West to rediscover a reason to live. On the frontier, Lt. John J. Dunbar finds meaning in a Sioux tribe that slowly and reluctantly accepts him as one of their own. Before long, he is standing by his Native allies, as well as a wolf he names “Two Socks,” against the U.S. Army to the emotionally bitter end. And no, unlike James Cameron’s $250 million CGI remake, it does not conclude in a cheery black-and-white manner.
3. 3:10 TO YUMA (2007)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $55 MILLION One of the few times I would dare say that I prefer the remake to the original, 3:10 to Yuma is an old-fashioned Western that combines the earnest morality plays of the genre’s later masterpieces with the gee-whiz thrills of the John Ford glory days. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale square off as two of the toughest movie stars working today in believable rugged fashion; one a rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War with everything to prove to a wayward son and the other the sympathetic devil himself come to seduce that boy into a world of crime. The talented ensemble around these two includes Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Alan Tudyk, Logan Lerman and Ben Foster as one of the best villains a Western has ever produced. His ambiguous love for Crowe’s Ben Wade is almost as intense as the sadistic pleasure he gets from burning men alive. But ultimately, the movie preserves the original’s moral conundrum that comes with doing the right thing in the face of almost certain death. And it does it with plenty of fantastic gun fights, set-pieces and top notch star charisma, as well.
2. UNFORGIVEN (1992)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $14+ MILLION Clint Eastwood’s swan song to the genre that made his career is a sober stare at the red-soaked main streets of Westerns from after the gun smoke has cleared. As much a misty-eyed deconstruction of trope he adores as a love letter, Unforgiven marked the Man with No Name’s final contemplation on a genre built of myth and death. Will Munny (Eastwood) is a retired outlaw and murderer who is roped into “one last job” by old pal Ned (Morgan Freeman). Soon, he finds him directly in the way of self-righteous lawman Little Bill (Gene Hackman) and audiences are left with a story about a protagonist out to commit murder for money and aiming to avenge a friend’s death by killing the authority figure who has brought stability to a town. It flips clichés of the genre on their head and deals with the real carnage rose-tinted glasses have long hidden. It is a sincere farewell to the style (as well as passed away filmmakers Sergio Leone and Don Siegel) that netted Eastwood his first Best Picture and Best Director wins. It is also a classic of the genre that closes the curtain on its last great icon.
1. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)PRODUCTION BUDGET: $30 MILLION Strange to end the list with the OTHER 2007 Western. If 3:10 to Yuma was a throwback to the Westerns audiences loved generations ago, The Assassination of Jesse James is the kind that helped hang them high in the 1970s. Melodic, challenging, existential and just not very fun, the movie represents the style audiences never took a shine to. Perhaps, that is why it too was a box office disappointment. Still, at $30 million, all involved could afford to make a wonderful film that still stands as a masterpiece and work again another day, including its deep supporting cast of Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner and Zooey Deschanel. Andrew Dominik’s soulful crisis of character explores the cult of personality and its birthing in the American psyche, even in the backwoods of Missouri. Filmmakers reach for a cerebral melancholy that chills to the bone when they attempt to reevaluate the lives of the titular James (Brad Pitt) and Ford (Casey Affleck) as self-destructive souls enamored in an unspoken joint-destiny. Mythmaking is washed aside when the film’s Jesse reveals himself to be the true sociopath most historians imagine, one with no qualms about shooting men in the back and still being labeled a hero. Yet, the movie cries for him just as much as for his back-stabbing assassin, the man-apart whose own awkward peculiarity is as equally unnerving as it is hopelessly sympathetic. Jesse may have gotten the ballads after his death, but Bob gets the mournful funeral march, “Song for Bob” during the movie’s haunting closing moments. Indeed, Nick Cave’s score spectrally stomps over all the proceedings, including an amazingly photographed train robbery that on a miniscule budget looks better than anything in a film with nine-times its financial size. So, there is a list of 10 modern Westerns that mostly found audiences and recognition without having to hold up the town square’s First National Bank or Bisbee Stagecoach to do it. Plus, there are plenty more that did not make the list, such as Maverick, Ride with the Devil and even Back to the Future Part III. The Western is what Hollywood makes of it. So perhaps, in the future, the answer might be NOT to make it a CGI spectacle. Agree with this list? Disagree? Leave a comment about your favorite recent Westerns, or just the ol’ longhorns in general.

 

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