There’s something refreshing about Michael Polish’s approach to the Western genre in “Terror on the Prairie.” The simple story, stripped-down style and uncompromising violence seem to come from a desire to engage with the genre on a more complex level. Rather than make an action-filled romp, Polish chose to focus on the quieter moments on the range. I was pleasantly surprised by his take, even if he isn’t the first one to do it.
In the early days, Westerns were boisterous celebrations of manifest destiny with minimal introspection. As time went on, though, filmmakers started to tinker with audience expectations, allowing for deeper discussions about Western myth-making.
Even the filmmaker most associated with Westerns, John Ford, seemed to develop a desire to more deeply explore character, style and story in his later films, like “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Sam Peckinpah continued this deconstruction in his film “The Wild Bunch,” and Robert Altman completely turned the genre on its head with “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
For many, however, Clint Eastwood’s meditative “Unforgiven” is the definitive revisionist Western, delving into the moral price the characters have to pay in order to thrive in a brutal world. Since then, there have been a handful of notable Westerns looking to build upon Eastwood’s masterpiece, though they seldom break through into the mainstream.
If you’re a fan of Westerns, here are a few recent entries you may have missed.
“Open Range” (2003)
Before he was the star of “Yellowstone,” Kevin Costner directed, co-produced, and co-starred in this straightforward Western about two “free grazers” (Costner and Robert Duvall) who run afoul of a low-level land baron (Michael Gambon). Tensions mount until a violent confrontation is inevitable. Along the way, the main characters grapple with their pasts and their tenuous futures. It is a solid, unassuming film with some wonderful performances by Annette Bening, Diego Luna and the inimitable Duvall.
“The Proposition” (2005)
Written by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (who would go on to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”), this film is that rare non-American Western. In the outback of 1880s colonized Australia, a pragmatic lawman (Ray Winstone) makes a deal with a wanted fugitive (Guy Pearce) wherein the fugitive will hunt down and kill his own demented brother (a hypnotic Danny Huston). The resulting story is wrought with questions of loyalty and guilt, punctuated by graphic violence. It is brutal and beautiful at the same time, with a haunting score by Cave and Warren Ellis.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
Many modern Westerns seek to explore the legends of the Old West, attempting to bring these larger-than-life figures down to a more human level. Andrew Dominik’s melancholy depiction of the legendary Jesse James (Brad Pitt) boils all of the elements of Western myths down to their most basic elements, finding both instability and romance. Featuring astonishing cinematography by Roger Deakins, this film looks for the flaws in our heroes, then openly mourns them when it finds them. It is a genuine modern masterpiece.
Like “Open Range” before it, Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” (adapted from the book by Robert B. Parker) strips away all extraneous elements from its simple Western story until it resembles a bleached cow skull in the desert sand: unforgiving, ominous and unromantic. Featuring unpretentious performances by heavy hitters Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, and Jeremy Irons, this film manages to adopt a matter-of-fact tone while retaining significant style.
“Bone Tomahawk” (2015)
A harrowing blend of the Western and horror genres, S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” follows a posse (led by Kurt Russell, in a career-best performance) as it attempts to rescue a young woman (played by Lil Simmons) abducted by cannibalistic humanoid monsters. What these men witness chills them to the bone, forcing them to find their true courage in the face of unrelenting inhumanity. The wonderful, poetic dialogue is offset by the nauseating amounts of gore, resulting in a unique cinematic experience that you won’t soon forget (even if you try).
“Old Henry” (2021)
Another film to capitalize on recognizable historical figures, “Old Henry” incorporates the legend of Billy the Kid into the story of a meek rancher (Tim Blake Nelson) and his discontented son (Gavin Lewis) as they attempt to discern the intentions of a suspicious lawman (Stephen Dorff). Like “Terror on the Prairie,” this is a stand-off movie in which the hero’s mettle is tested in the face of tremendous pressure. With some delightful twists and turns, this underrated film is inherently crowd-pleasing.
These are just a handful of recommendable films that happily engage in Western tropes while attempting to expand the genre. There are many more, like “Seraphim Falls,” “The Homesman,” and “3:10 to Yuma,” just to name a few. While it remains to be seen how many of them will stand the test of time, as classic movies like “Stagecoach” and “Shane” have, they’re still absolutely worth watching and fans of the genre won’t regret doing so.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.