After last week’s article about some of the prettiest women in the far west, it seems fair to balance things out by talking instead of the men starring in the most recent western movies.
Although decades have passed and this genre of stories is no longer popular as it once was, audiences still seem to appreciate these men embodying traditional masculine traits such as courage, physical strength, and stoicism in the face of danger.
Often portrayed as anti-heroic figures, their adventures arise from an initial indifference, yet they come to stand up for what is right and protect their community.
This complexity and moral depth offer a more nuanced and flawed portrayal of masculinity, outlining characters who struggle against their inner demons or an unhappy past that influences their actions and motivations.
Even for the sweet ladies, there is no denying the appeal of these outsiders or rebels who reject the constraints of society’s expectations of them.
So the facade of cynical individualism with which they ride across the prairies is just a reflection of the self-confidence we all wish to strive for in one way or another.
However, recently, how many western movies have been capable of delivering such characters?
Let’s find out together by looking at some gems that, strangely enough, only a few have appreciated amid the general indifference of the public and large-scale distribution.
Table of contents
Old Henry (2021)
Let’s start with one of the recent Westerns that I have most enjoyed, even from the distant Unforgiven, a masterpiece of the 1990s and one of the best movies ever by and with Clint Eastwood.
Today as then, indeed, we have the story of an old farmer with a shady past who lives in isolation with his teenage son in the late 18th century.
Life is hard, with almost nothing to offer in return, and the young boy is eager to ditch his father and discover the world for himself.
Until the world arrives at their door instead, when a wounded man ends up on their property seeking shelter, even trying to attack them while they welcome him inside the house, treating his wounds.
However, given the bundle of money he is carrying, it soon becomes clear that the stranger is on the run from his enemies, old criminal buddies whom he betrayed by snatching the rich loot of a robbery from them.
Directed by Potsy Ponciroli and starring the superb Tim Blake Nelson, Old Henry is a western in which the genre’s myth is best revived with the style and pace of more recent movies.
Surrounding the complex central character of Henry, who is simply legendary, we also have the strong performances of all the other actors, including the excellent Stephen Dorff as the villain, although it is hard to find anyone truly good in this story.
The delicate period photography and tense plot are simply perfect, bringing back the more traditional aesthetic canons of the Western while offering decidedly more modern editing and filming techniques.
Although it has missed distribution in many (too many) theaters, fortunately, many critics still succeeded in finding and giving it at least the moral recognition it deserves.
News of the World (2020)
Today’s second western movie occurs in a less recent period, in the mid-1800s, featuring a man who fights his battle with something other than a gun.
This former captain, played by a superb Tom Hanks, travels from town to town, bringing knowledge to the ignorant populace.
Indeed, he gathers his illiterate fellow citizens at each stop, reading them the latest news from the journals.
He has not been home to his wife for a long time, and just when he thinks of quitting those trips, he comes across a little girl who is the only survivor of a massacre.
Unfortunately, the child speaks only the native language, having been raised by the Kiowa tribe after her family was killed.
No one in town seems to care about her fate, so the captain decides to take the baby all the way back to Texas to her only remaining living relatives.
After the successful Jason Bourne saga, of which he directed the best chapters, Paul Greengrass switches genres with a thrilling on-the-road of yesteryear that offers a new perspective on the classic western setting.
This strange experience gently explores the grief and trauma of loss in which the two protagonists live.
In this regard, there is little to add except to further revere another performance by the impeccable veteran Tom Hanks, capable of fleshing out a simple horse-riding scene with only the sad weariness of his wise and patient eyes.
Equally good is the promising young Helena Zengel, whose complex evolution of a character not easy to understand we admire.
Compared to other westerns, we have a greater emphasis on storytelling and character development rather than the mere spectacularity of action scenes.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
From a dramatic and introspective western movie, we move now to a crazier story starring not just one man but the two brothers, John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix.
These two fine actors are the famous Sisters brothers, Oregon’s most feared hired guns in the pay of ruthless Commodore Rutger Hauer, in one of the last performances of this undisputed cinematic legend.
Tired of working together because of their very different temperaments, they accept one last assignment before they each go their separate ways.
Their task is to track down a young chemist who has fled to Louisiana and then make him reveal by any means a valuable secret formula that would greatly facilitate the search for gold deposits.
Before them, the commodore had already sent the mercenary Jake Gyllenhaal, except he later betrayed him and got into business with the chemist.
Along the journey, the two brothers will have time to rethink their relationship, from their troubled childhood to the life they lead now, always steeped in violence and selfishness.
Directing this strange western, we have the french Jacques Audiard, who creates a unique blend of humor and action without neglecting the psychological aspect of these ruthless, lawless men.
The Sisters brothers are the most complex characters, with John C. Reilly being a naive child/adult and Joaquin Phoenix being more cunning but a victim of alcohol and his temper.
Depending on the circumstances, they are either brave heroes or brutal killers, flawed just like the ruthless world they fight daily.
Overall, the actors’ performance and excellent direction with a few splatter tips perfectly convey the rugged beauty of the American West, leading to one of the most recent, witty, and unconventional revisitation of the western genre.
The Homesman (2014)
Let us now discuss the adventure of an older man in a recent and too underrated movie directed and starring the legendary Tommy Lee Jones.
The affair does not begin in the best ways for this elderly retired U.S. Army officer, now reduced to being a penniless wretch living quarterly in a farmer’s cabin.
Until the owner’s friends kick down the door, leaving him riding his horse with a slipknot tied around his neck.
Lucky for him, the sullen spinster Hilary Swank passes by at that moment, saving his life and demanding his help on a dangerous mission in return.
Indeed some women in the area have gone mad for different reasons, and their husbands no longer want anything to do there, so she must accompany them to a distant nursing home in Iowa.
However, the maiden has underestimated how strenuous and dangerous the long journey can be and the effect staying so close to these mentally ill women can have on her.
We can say what we want, but Tommy Lee Jones does not make the mistake of indulging in complacency when describing his character.
In the great nothingness of the vast American plains, this lost man finds his soul through the madness of the women he travels with.
A caravan of great actresses led by the reclusive Hilary Swank stubbornly in search of a life partner she cannot find.
All these women are driven mad by the indifference of their own men and a society that despises them, preferring to confine in a room under the care of supposed Christian charity.
The Homesman is a story impossible to sum up in a few words, having so many different emotions for one of the darkest and most realistic portrayals of frontier life.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
Finally, we conclude with a wild western adventure directed by multi-talented Gore Verbinski, creator of the successful Pirates of the Caribbean saga.
From the famous franchise, the director brings along Johnny Depp, playing a dazed Native American who saves the life of a white man in the middle of the desert.
Truth be told, this scoundrel would be more intent on robbing than saving him; nevertheless, the pair sets out to return to civilization and do justice.
Indeed, the white guy is a young city lawyer who arrived in the area to capture a dangerous criminal, only to get betrayed by some corrupt policemen who ambush him along with his buddy Sheriff.
Because his enemies think he is dead, he thus begins to don a mask, becoming the famous vigilante everyone calls the Lone Ranger, accompanied on his adventures by the faithful Indian named Tonto.
Gore Verbinski brings the old hero of a television series back to life in one of the most expensive and unsuccessful productions of his career.
Everyone admired the incredible action sequences, extraordinary acrobatic prowess of the stuntmen, and jaw-dropping visual effects that provided sure entertainment and excitement.
Unfortunately, much of the audience criticized the uneven narrative that often gets lost in dream sequences, almost wholly disconnected from the main story.
I find such moments to be the best instead, ultimately unleashing the visionary talent of a director whose greatest strength lies in his passion for madness and willingness to explain the unexplainable.
The same is true of the lead actors, although Armie Hammer was much appreciated in the role of the ranger.
In contrast, Johnny Depp was fiercely criticized for his stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, evidently by too many people with little sense of humor.