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The Modern Westerns Canon

Ever since the release of ‘Unforgiven,’ the Western genre has relentlessly reinvented itself, across multiple platforms. From video games like ‘Red Dead Redemption’ to TV shows like ‘Deadwood’ and movies like ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,’ here are our favorite recent entries in the genre.

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The Western is one of America’s great cultural achievements because it can tell so many American stories in so many different ways. The Western can make myths and undo them; it can depict great courage and great cowardice; it can show acts of heroism and villainy. It can take place in dusty border towns, on snow-capped mountains, in the 1840s or the present day. It can celebrate what is great about this nation, and illuminate the original sins on which it was built.

In honor of the runaway success of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, we present this Modern Westerns Canon, a noncomprehensive survey of some of our favorite movies, books, video games, and television shows since 1992. We picked 1992 because that was the year Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was released. It felt like the end of one chapter for the genre, and the beginning of something new. Included below are darkly comic visions of a dystopian Australian outback, a painterly and meditative look at celebrity, and a profane TV show set in a mining settlement on the verge of becoming a town. The only thing these works have in common is that they place characters against a stark backdrop and ask which way their moral compasses point.

Unforgiven (1992)

Adam Nayman: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” explains an unretired killer in Unforgiven. He’s right when it comes to matters of life and death, but the acclaim for Eastwood’s viciously revisionist Western — including Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director — is wholly justified. By casting himself in the role of the barely-back-in-the-saddle-again hit man William Munny, Eastwood managed to interrogate and reinvent his Man With No Name persona, meditating on the morality of murder and the futility of vengeance against a stark frontier backdrop. Dimly lit and funereally paced, Unforgiven is an old man’s movie, but instead of closing the book on Eastwood’s career, it set him up for a run of late-period hits, some of which approached (but never equaled) its discomfiting brilliance.

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (1992–98)

David Shoemaker: There’s a sense in which McCarthy’s body of work is Darwinian, churning and revising from a fantastical, expansive exhalation of force into a streamlined, purposeful point somewhere in the future. That Blood Meridian somehow begat No Country is as galling as it is obvious in retrospect. For all the prehistoric genius of the former and blunt-trauma perfection of the latter, my personal favorite is what came in between — the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain). It’s a trilogy, but think of it as three seasons of a prestige TV show. You don’t have to read them together, but — here’s the key — you’ll want to. Because unlike Blood Meridian and the novels that came before, in the Border Trilogy McCarthy figured out the key to the Western style: the irresistible pulpy serial style.

The books follow two cowboys — John Grady Cole and Billy Parham — in the last days of the Old West era in America. The books embody and exude that elegy — as well as the violence that McCarthy is known for, and some compelling romance too. There are pieces of The Searchers and Shane and, hell, Old Yeller in there. When John Grady and Billy meet up in Cities, there’s a palpable old team-up excitement, but there’s also the feeling of impending doom. The whole trilogy is that crux: the place between the violent past and the violent future, between the old ways and the new ways and McCarthy’s old style of storytelling and his new one. And the tension in that is like watching a shootout from 20 feet away.

Tombstone (1993)

Chris Ryan: The most rewatchable, most quotable Western of the last 30 years. Tombstone feels like a ’90s action blockbuster, complete with Bruce Willis–esque one-liners before killshots, but its real roots go back to Howard Hawks’s hang-out cowboy classics such as Rio Bravo and Red River. Directed by George P. Cosmatos (with a huge helping hand from star Kurt Russell), Tombstone is a slick update of the oft-told O.K. Corral story, but is also a platonic love story between Russell’s Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer’s doomed poet-gambler Doc Holliday. Kilmer turns in one of the great Western performances, but don’t sleep on Russell, especially when he dunks on Billy Bob Thornton’s loud-mouth gambler, barking, “Skin that smoke wagon and see what happens.”

The movie is full of Old West jargon porn like that, making it endlessly pleasurable even when you know exactly what’s going to happen.

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Nayman: After copping a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a corrupt sheriff in Unforgiven, Gene Hackman doubled down on the bad-cop archetype for Sam Raimi’s delirious gunfight comedy. The Quick and the Dead pays homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, but with enough blood-red marinara sauce to be an Evil Dead sequel. The presences of future Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio as crackshots battling over heroine Sharon Stone showed Raimi’s clever casting instincts, but it really is Hackman’s show; his Mayor Herod is the sort of ruthless, self-amused monster who really does deserve to get it right between the eyes … which (spoiler alert) he does in one of the movie’s many superb gore shots.

Lone Star (1996)

Ryan: John Sayles’s unfussy masterpiece is set in Frontera, on the border between Texas and Mexico, but really it takes place in a ghost town. Every character in Lone Star is haunted by something — their first loves, the secrets and lies of the region’s history, the outsized footprint of those who came before them. On its surface, it’s a mystery: a new sheriff investigates a cold case that may or may not involve his late father — the man who wore the badge before him. But it’s really about what happens when people collide with the memory and mythology of the past. Sayles uses his whodunit setup to introduce a wide swath of Frontera residents — cops, bartenders, teachers, soldiers, journalists, politicians — all trying to carve out a place in the modern West. It features movie star performances from a beautiful collection of character actors — most notably Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Peña as star-crossed lovers — and a fine character-actor turn from a future movie star (Matthew McConaughey). There’s also a scene where an overmedicated Frances McDormand wears both a Houston Oilers hat and a Dallas Cowboys jersey.

More than 20 years later, the sincerity and heart of this movie is almost disarming. The people may be world-weary and cynical, but Sayles’s approach is anything but — the film brims with empathy. Not for nothing: It’s got one of the great underrated movie twists and one of my favorite sign-off lines. What a perfect little miracle. Don’t let it be lost to history.

Deadwood (2004)

Ryan: David Milch is the Shakespeare of the frontier saloon. Set in a South Dakota mining town in the 1870s, Deadwood is about the trappings of civilization — law and order, politics, business concerns — colliding with the untamed Black Hills wilderness. But it’s mostly about language: a dirty, ornate hymn to the then-new American way of speaking, where Old World propriety and rough-hewn profanity go hand-in-fucking-hand.

Milch writes about the bad, the beautiful, the innocent and damned, the barkeepers, the cavalry officers, the lawmen, and the gunslingers, all out on in the wild, wrenching society out of the mud. There’s never been anything like it on television.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Ryan: We are told in the opening moments of this movie that Jesse James had granulated eyelids, a condition that caused him to blink more than usual. “As if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.” This movie makes me blink more than usual. Eleven years on, and I’m still trying to accept Andrew Dominik and Roger Deakins’s vision of the post–Civil-War border states — the sparks flying from a braking train, the plains burning on the horizon, the frozen landscapes, the candlelit dining rooms. Outlaws were the first American celebrities, and James was his time’s … Brad Pitt. So who better to play him? In the film, James is 34 years old; Pitt was about 10 years older in real life. Even cowboys have their vanity. You can float gently down the stream of this movie — wading in the visuals and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s magical and mournful score — or you can read it as an essay on American myth-making and what hero worship does to the parishioner.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Ryan: The great modern Western. Faithfully adapted by the Coen brothers from Cormac McCarthy’s welterweight champion of a thriller, No Country follows three archetypes — the hero, the villain, and the man who is in over his head — as they do battle across an arid desert landscape. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is the Hannibal Lecter of the Western, but beyond the catchphrase (“Call it”) and the creative use of captive-bolt pistols, Chigurh is a symbol for the predatory, almost random violence and evil that has historically resided out on the frontier. This was a place where individuals tried to stake their claim, and often died trying. As Ellis tells Tommy Lee Jones’s lawman, “You can’t stop what’s coming.”

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Nayman: “Lost” is the first word in Kelly Reichardt’s fact-based drama about a wagon train waylaid along the Oregon Trail. Carved into the side of a rock, it hints that the pioneers played by Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, and Zoe Kazan have taken a wrong turn on the way to manifest destiny. From its horizon-slicing aspect ratio to its explicitly feminist rejection of macho cowboy heroics (embodied by Bruce Greenwood’s arrogant trail boss Stephen Meek), Meek’s Cutoff revisits and revises genre conventions, examining the twin myths of the Wild West and American exceptionalism with a mix of skill and skepticism.

True Grit (2010)

Nayman: A forbiddingly death-tinged Western that opens in a funeral parlor and just gets more morbid as it goes along, True Grit is still Joel and Ethan Coen’s biggest hit to date. It’s a crowd-pleaser that’s only deceptively pleasing, and which accesses deeper feelings than usual for its creators. Yes, it’s fun to watch Jeff Bridges evoke John Wayne as the one-eyed bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn, and 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld machine-guns her dialogue like an old Coen pro, but it’s the encroaching sense of melancholy — a goodbye to childhood and to a wild, unruly moment in American history — that resonates, powered by Carter Burwell’s gorgeous, gospel-flecked score.

Red Dead Redemption (2010)

Jason Concepcion: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is often touted as an influence on Red Dead Redemption. As a fan of both, I’ve always thought that was high-level bullshit. McCarthy’s masterpiece is set in the Southwest and its characters ride horses and swill whisky and shoot pistols. The author’s biblical grammar and archaic dialogue create an almost fossilized authenticity. It is a work that feels unaware of the time its reader inhabits. Red Dead spins an engrossing yarn and there are cowboys and stuff, but it’s always a video game. The game is aware that you, the player, are somewhere in the early 21st century sitting on your couch. Your saddle burn may vary, of course. But while playing Red Dead, I never found myself thinking “Oh, yeah, that’s what it must’ve been like to exterminate a herd of buffalo.”

But just the fact that the comparison seems plausible is a testament to how good Red Dead Redemption is. It is a great game and a great Western. The word “immersive” gets thrown around a lot when discussing video games. I’ve never felt engrossed in a game world to a level that I would call immersive. Playing it, I never felt as if I were really riding a horse out on a bluff, six-gun on my hip, sun setting behind me, on my way to bring some bad men to justice. It is, however, the closest I’ll ever get.

The Rover (2014)

Concepcion: 2014 was a great year for movies about men avenging their dogs. John Wick, with its balletic gunplay and geysers of cranial blood, became a surprise word-of-mouth hit, reinvented Keanu Reeves as a laconic middle-aged action star, and launched a franchise. The Rover, a grim, dust-streaked murder spree set in the Australian outback after the fall of civilization, did none of those things.

Westerns, implicitly or explicitly, are about systemic change. One way of life passes away as another takes its place. The traditional Western is set on the frontier, beyond the firm grip of law and order. But make no mistake, that law and order is coming. On the tracks of the railroad, on the backs of the migrants moving west in massive numbers, in the person of the blue-coated Union cavalry, riding to exterminate the savages.

The Rover, a dystopian tale set against the open landscape, is a Western in reverse. Global financial shocks have weakened the Australian central government and, presumably, the world order. Some kind of society still operates in the cities. But in the rural areas, like where Eric (Guy Pearce), the protagonist of The Rover, lives, rule of law has long ago retreated and there is only violence and crushing poverty. Toward the film’s brutal finale, Eric is captured by what passes for law enforcement. He’s to be shipped off to the city for … for what, exactly? Eric is confused. “Why don’t you just shoot me,” he asks the cop, then proceeds to confess to a double homicide. “No one ever came after me. Ten years ago. I never had to explain myself. Never had to lie to anyone. Never had to run and hide. I just buried them in a hole and went home.”

The Revenant (2015)

Concepcion: Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2015 film was one of the most troubled productions in recent memory. A lack of snow (hello, global warming!) in Canada resulted in an impromptu shoot in Argentina; crew members rebelled; a cast member was dragged naked across the cold ground for a particular scene; and Tom Hardy was forced to drop out of Suicide Squad because of the ballooning shooting schedule. Despite these problems, the final product was a success, both critically (12 Academy Award nominations, including wins for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography) and at the box office. I think it’s a fine action movie with arresting set pieces. It’s also, unwittingly, a trenchant observation of the power of systemic oppression.

The film’s hero is the survivalist and guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hugh and his half-native son, Hawk, are leading a party of trappers out of the backcountry when they’re set upon by an Arikara war band. The remnants of the trapping group escape by river. Soon after, Hugh is mauled by a bear. Hugh is left for dead and Hawk is murdered by the cowardly trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Hugh, ostensibly the hero of the picture, spends the rest of the film on a singular mission of vengeance. Glass empathizes with native peoples and tries to help his son survive the inherently racist frontier culture. He commiserates with Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud), a refugee of the Pawnee. When Hikuc is murdered by French hunters, Hugh kills them. He frees a native woman from assault. Heroic actions all. At the same time, he’s an instrument of that culture of exploitation. His job is literally to guide the people who murdered his son, who murdered Hikuc, to fresh fields of plunder. “Leo, you are the Revenant,” Iñárritu said during his Oscar acceptance speech. It’s unclear whether he knows that’s an insult.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Sean Fennessey: Not every Western needs breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley. Sometimes a confined whodunit will do. Quentin Tarantino’s Agatha Christie–in-the-roadhouse murder mystery draws together archetypes — the Civil War hero, the bounty hunter, the Mexican bandit, the English dandy — and shoots a refracting light at them. But, as usual, when they come together, we get a new spin on the Tarantino strategy — genre subversion in service of physical annihilation. And we do ultimately get a couple of those vistas, in service of a different sort of annihilation.