12 Western-themed series and movies that push the boundaries
Since their first appearance as silent films back in the late 19th Century, Western movies are a clear and specific genre, with neatly outlined landscapes, time periods and characters, from the lonesome cowboys to the cutthroat bandits; feisty widows in bonnets and pantalooned and corseted working gals in swing-doored saloons. There are railroads and coal mines, ranchers and revenge, outlaws and heroes. Let’s not even get into the 28 sub-genres, from Acid Westerns to to Weird Westerns (yes, it’s A Thing) or we’ll be here all day.
With so much scope, no wonder filmmakers like to shake things up a bit sometimes. Here is a list of some of the more unusual, unconventional Westerns to stream.
“The Western is far more durable and flexible as a genre than sceptics would have us believe.” – The Independent.
Set in four acts but not in chronological order (so pay attention!), this is a Dutch-American as well as French, German, Belgian and Swedish international production. The cast includes Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning and Kit Harington, and the short story is “A frontier woman turns fugitive when she is wrongly accused of a crime she didn’t commit and is hunted by a vengeful preacher”.
Brimstone was well-received at film festivals and by critics, earning several award nominations and wins.
Concrete Cowboy (Netflix)
This one is set firmly in contemporary time, telling the story of a kid who has just been expelled from school for the umpteenth time. His frustrated mother has just had enough by this point so she drops him off on the sidewalk to spend the summer with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba).
Harp – a solid cowboy name – is a member of a group of urban cowboys, so you can file this under coming of age, learning curve, self-discovery titles as the teen gets his life lessons from the camaraderie and the horses.
The movie is based on the book Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, which is a fictionalised account of the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. It has a great soundtrack.
Damsel (Netflix and coming to Showmax soon)
This one is on Netflix until 21 April, but fret not – it will be on Showmax from 19 April that for your viewing pleasure.
Says Roger Ebert.com: “Damsel is a sly feminist manifesto disguised as a shaggy, amiable hangout movie. It’s a quirky, comic Western with bursts of startling violence. And it calls for a bit of a high-wire act from its gifted cast, particularly Robert Pattison, Mia Wasikowska and co-writer/director David Zellner, who must navigate terrain that’s both quietly beautiful and wildly bizarre.”
Django Unchained (Netflix)
Quentin Tarantino loves his Westerns and he has two on this list, which, as always, are an homage to the Spaghetti Westerns in particular. And also as always, he rounds up a stellar cast, led by Jamie Foxx, with Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio (currently doing the meme rounds with a still from this movie), Samuel L Jackson, Walton Goggins, Christoph Waltz (who won the Best Actor Oscar for this role), and James Remar (Dexter).
“The film is in two parts: the first half is a mock Western; the second is a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery, set in the deep South and ending in fountains of redemptive spurting blood,” says The New Yorker.
Five Fingers For Marseilles (Showmax)
This South African Western from 2017 was directed by Michael Matthews and won best film at the 14th African Movie Academy Awards.
“Five teenage boys stand in a circle, each pointing a slingshot at the others. The camera follows their glances as they look to see who will betray the stillness. For fans of Sergio Leone, this setup may seem familiar, but the standoff takes place in compellingly undiscovered country, where the rule of genre is as malleable as the rule of the law,” says the New York Times review.
“These boys are the Five Fingers, a ragtag posse concerned with the protection of their hometown. Instead of Death Valley, their home is Railway, an abandoned shantytown on the outskirts of Marseilles, South Africa. The strongest among this band of youthful rebels is Tau, who kills two white police officers and runs for the hills, leaving the fate of Railway to the rest of the Five Fingers.”
From The Guardian: “Written and directed by Scott Frank and executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh, Godless is grim, exciting and visually arresting. It’s slow, but necessarily so, patiently offering vital exposition while its classic, Western plot unfurls itself violently. That violence can be pegged, mostly, to Jeff Daniels’ Frank Griffin, a menacing, one-armed outlaw who’s looking for a man named Roy Goode. Goode, played by Jack O’Connell, was once a member of Griffin’s criminal cabal, but when a train heist turns savage and Goode saves a woman who’s being raped, he bucks town with the loot, staves off Griffin and his 32 men, and lumbers to a farm owned by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery).”
Sew The Winter To My Skin (Showmax)
Another South African offering, this one comes from film maker Jahmil XT Qubeka, who reimagines the hunt for John Kepe, an outlaw in 1950s South Africa who robbed from white colonist farmers and gave to the impoverished Indigenous poor, becoming a threat to the foundations of Apartheid society.
“Qubeka’s largely wordless, diffuse, time-scrambled narrative feels willfully confusing at first, but it rewards patient viewers with its sensory riches and hypnotic rhythms,” says The Hollywood Reporter.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)
The Coen brothers made this six-part anthology film, having flexed their Western muscles with True Grit and No Country For Old Men. It’s black comedy of course, and the cast includes James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, and Tom Waits. Music and songs are used in each vignette, sometimes incidental, sometimes as part of the action.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a twisty Coen brothers masterpiece of tall tales and fables and, by its very nature, rather ambiguous,” says Entertainment Weekly, adding 14 things you might miss.
The Hateful Eight (Showmax)
Tarantino rounds up his favourites again, in this tale of a bounty hunter, the outlaw, betrayal, murder, and the epic battle to be the one who emerges from the snowbound log cabin to claim the reward. Behold: Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madson and Bruce Dern.
“A blood-splattered murder mystery in 19th-century Wyoming is the notional plot for Tarantino’s swaggering off-message and old-fashioned three-hour masterpiece,” says The Guardian. Legendary cowboy movie composer Ennio Morricone did the original score, for which he won his one and only Oscar.
The Revenant (Amazon)
This one is classed as a Revisionist Western (a sub-genre, also known as “anti-Western”, with its roots in the mid-1960s and early 1970s) in case you’re wondering what a story about an explorer and a bear is doing on this list. Be that as it may, it’s based on the real-life experiences of Hugh Glass (played by Leo DiCaprio who won an Oscar for the role), which took place in 1823.
“Revenge, goes the old Klingon proverb, is a dish best served cold. Which is good news for The Revenant, the new film by Mexican boundary-pusher Alejandro G Iñárritu, because few tales of vengeance have ever looked quite so butt-clenchingly chilly,” says Empire Online. “It’s become the stuff of legend, a nine-month shoot in the wilds of Alberta and Argentina. But Iñárritu has come out the other side with an astonishing sensory experience, one that plunges the viewer into a sub-zero hell that often looks like heaven.”
The Sisters Brothers (Showmax)
John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are the Sisters brothers Eli and Charlie. Gunslingers for hire, they’ve been employed by The Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to kill a man. Jake Gyllenhaal plays private detective John Morris, who is to track down said doomed man (played by Riz Ahmed, The Night Of) and hand him over to the Sisters.
Spoiler: this does not go according to plan. “Jacques Audiard serves up just what audiences would expect in a tale from the wild frontier – wagon trains, rugged landscapes, galloping horses, decadent saloon bars and plenty of shootouts. Alongside the action, the director also shows us his characters’ inner lives. In doing so, he proves again that the Western is far more durable and flexible as a genre than sceptics would have us believe,” says The Independent.
Three seasons of the HBO sci-fi Western are available to stream, and good news for fans is that a fourth has been announced. Michael Crichton imagined his futuristic theme park all the way back in 1973: a playground for the incredibly wealthy in which they could interact with robots in the Old West, drink with them, talk to them, take them to bed, and even kill them. Until the robots fight back.
The cast includes Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden and Ed Harris. “Thoughtful, twisty, and disturbing, this grim series digs into just what it means to be human and presents viewers with more questions than answers. The 1973 movie was creepy and effective but a lark – this is darker and even more troubling,” says Common Sense Media.