The Western is the quintessential American film genre. From the 1930s to the 1960s, American cinemas were filled with cowboys saving towns and fending off outlaws. While the classic Western may have gone out of fashion, it didn’t disappear completely. Instead, it morphed into what we know as the Neo Western. Let’s see what separates movies like No Country for Old Men from classic Westerns as well as rank the best modern Western movies for you to watch next.
Watch: Logan — Neo-Western Movies Defined
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DEFINE MODERN WESTERNS
Modern cowboy movies
The Western film genre began all the way back in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery. The film may have only been 12 minutes long, but it paved the way for what Westerns would be in the decades to come.
Westerns have clear archetypes, such as the cowboy and the outlaw. They take place in the wilderness, often in small frontier towns or desolate landscapes.
Finally, classic Western movie themes encapsulate ideas like conquering the great American west and setting up civilization. The Neo Western takes these classic ideas and expands upon them. But how?
NEO WESTERN DEFINITION
What is a Neo Western?
A Neo Western is a subgenre of the Western that adopts its characters, settings, and themes and transplants them with contemporary sensibilities. Modern day Westerns may update characters to be more relatable to current-day audiences.
The setting is often in the present day. The division between good and evil may not be so clear. Additionally, the best Neo Westerns often have the theme of displacement. The protagonist may have values that no longer feel relevant in the modern world.
Common Characteristics of Modern Cowboy Films:
- Hyper violence
- Set close to when the film came out
- Progression of Old West mentality in the 21st century
- Feeling displaced in modern society
- Search for justice
Now that you know what constitutes a Neo Western, let’s take a look into the best modern Western movies. These films perfectly showcase what a good Western today can accomplish and what you should keep in mind if you plan on writing your own.
BEST MODERN DAY WESTERN MOVIES
Breaking Bad definitely qualifies as a modern Western. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were outlaws looking out for their own self-interest, but you understood where they were coming from. With El Camino, we finally see Jesse coming into his own. He has to come to terms with his past and carve out a new identity for himself in the future.
This Neo Western crime drama looks toward the past to influence the future, no unlike how the Western genre as a whole has done. Jesse wants to make things right with the past. This isn’t unlike how many modern Westerns critically examine how problematic classic Westerns were. They attempt to reconcile that fact by bringing modern sensibilities to classic Western themes.
MODERN DAY COWBOY MOVIES
9. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a powerful mortality tale centering around the death and subsequent cover-up of a Mexican undocumented worker. The film follows many of Jones’ sensibilities as an actor, particularly his sense of the understatement and how you can do a lot with a little.
In classic Westerns, the (often white) cowboy holds authority over all. But in this Neo Western, that idea is challenged. After all, a Border Patrol officer is expected to uphold the law, but he’s the one who killed the worker in the first place, setting off the events of the film in motion. There is a certain fluidity at play in regards to what constitutes “America,” and it’s appropriate the film takes place around the U.S./Mexico border.
BEST NEO WESTERNS
8. Wind River (2017)
There isn't much America left to explore these days. But that doesn’t mean modern Westerns can’t expose audiences to a side of the country they haven’t seen before. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan wanted to create a movie that called attention to the high number of indigenous women who are sexually assaulted and/or murdered each year. The result is Wind River.
The dark story is complemented by its bleak setting, which is quintessential Neo Western. It takes place predominantly on a vast Indian reservation in Wyoming. The snowy, desolate landscape works hand-in-hand with the story to instill a sense of dread in the audience, even when the story slows down.
THE REVISIONIST WESTERN
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a bit different from other Neo Westerns of the 21st century. The film takes place in 1881 and tells a revisionist tale of how the outlaw Jesse James was killed. It may not take place in a modern setting, but it recontextualizes how audiences interact with these mythic characters. It takes American lore and flips it on its head, very much abiding by the themes of the best modern Westerns.
BEST MODERN WESTERNS FOR FILMMAKERS
6. The Proposition (2005)
There’s a certain allure to the outlaw life. Despite consisting of killers and bank robbers, American society has romanticized the idea of living in the wilderness. But as The Proposition shows, there’s a tortured existence awaiting anyone who falls into that life.
The film may take place many years ago, but it updates the idea of what a Western can be. It’s a great example of an anti Western as it’s set in the past but dismantles ideas that were prevalent in that age. It’s not all gunslingers and outlaws. It’s a brutal existence, and the film doesn’t pull back at any point. It may be an Australian film, but it has all the tenets you would expect out of a modern Western.
NEO COWBOY FILMS
5. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain follows the complex relationship between two sheep herders over the course of 20 years. Most Neo Westerns deal with themes of displacement, and it’s easy to see that on full display here.
The two protagonists have traditionally masculine jobs and despite occurring in a modern setting, they’re expected to act and love a certain way. They may each marry women to keep up appearances, but their love for each other never dies. They’re two men living out of place in a world that isn’t ready to accept them. It all adds up to one of the best book-to-film adaptations of the 21st century.
A NEO WESTERN CRIME DRAMA
4. Hell or High Water (2016)
Hell or High Water has all the elements of a Western but looks all too familiar to a modern audience. The film follows two brothers who rob banks to prevent the family farm from being foreclosed on. In the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis, trying to make a living and retain a home is all the more relevant.
The movie makes this idea explicit. There are signs all over town of other buildings being foreclosed on. A waitress fights to make sure a sheriff doesn’t take away her tip, which could be evidence because she needs to keep a roof over her head. In classic Westerns, bank robbers were the bad guys. In Hell or High Water, we know the banks are the bad guys because we’ve seen in our own lives how they destroyed the economy. We want the bank robbers to succeed because they’re finally in a position to get back at an unfair system.
BEST EXAMPLES OF THE WESTERN FILM GENRE
3. Sicario (2015)
Sicario may be the least “Western” film on this list, but it has all of the unmistakable characteristics of the genre. It has morally-grey characters like Alejandro, whose family was murdered by the drug cartel. When we see how dark his character becomes, we understand where he’s coming from, even if it’s incredibly vicious.
Kate Mercer is arguably the only “good” character in the film, and she’s punished at the end of the film. She’s trying to be good, but she’s become displaced in a world that’s become increasingly murky.
A SUPERHERO NEO WESTERN
2. Logan (2017)
Logan frequently references the 1953 film, Shane, which is a film about a long gunman who is tasked with saving weak townspeople against a ruthless cattle baron. The similarities between the two films is abundantly clear, but Logan goes much further in how it interacts with the Western genre.
Neo Westerns deal heavily with the aftermath of characters’ or society’s past. Logan has essentially functioned as a weapon for many years, and now, he’s the last of a dying kind. The fact Wolverine literally has to fight a younger version of himself makes this clear and how you can never fully escape from what you’ve done.
THE BEST MODERN WESTERN
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
If there’s any movie responsible for reinvigorating interest in the Western genre, it’s No Country for Old Men. It’s easy to see why it’s the Coen Brothers’ best film. It blends together elements of the Western, thriller, and neo noir genres to create something wholly unique that helped push the Western into new territory.
The film shows how outdated certain ideas regarding morality are, particularly in the character of Ed Tom Bell. In a classic Western, he wouldn’t question himself at all, and he would end up catching the bad guy in the end. But he’s displaced from that world. Old ideas of morality are no longer relevant, making him the “Old Man” from the title and how there’s no longer a place for him, and characters like him, in our world and movies.
Ultimate Guide to Movie Genres
There are plenty of ways to mix and match genres. Many Neo Westerns are also superhero films or thrillers. But what other genres could you incorporate into the style? Take a look at our movie genres list to see all the different styles you can tell the same story.