The neo-western is a subset of films within the western genre that invoke themes and motifs of classic westerns but takes the setting to modern times. Instead of horses, saloons, and duels accompanied by a tumbleweed, there are modern towns on the southwest where the law is pursuing dastardly rogues in cars.
The neo-western is a fascinating type of film that has its roots firmly planted in the 1940s and has steadily grown. With the success of last year’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and the crossover appeal of Logan, there is still plenty of interest in modern-day westerns. Here are ten great neo-western films that you should definitely watch.
El Mariachi (IMDB Score 6.9/10)
Robert Rodriguez has grown to be one of the most popular cult directors around, owing to his trademark style. A true auteur, his approach to filmmaking expand even beyond the film set.
He is known to write, edit and even compose most of his films, with his feature-length debut being no different. El Mariachi takes a simplistic crime story and fills it so much flair that it is a bit difficult to keep up. Rodriguez uses his signature love of classic westerns and graphic violence to deliver a film that the gridnhouse titans would approve of.
Rango (IMDB Score 7.2/10)
This 2011 animated film stars Johnny Depp as Rango, a pet chameleon hoisted away to this strange town called Dirt. Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) directs this tale of misfits and lawlessness and delivers one of the most inventive and mature animated films ever.
Taking inspiration from classic westerns as well as a stylistic influence from writers such as Hunter S. Thompson (appropriate since Depp also played a fictionalized version of the author in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), this is a delightful tale of how powerful ambition can be. This is the only film on this list that can be enjoyed by families.
Lone Star (IMDB Score 7.4/10)
Director John Sayles (Passion Fish, Men With Guns, Go for Sisters) delivered this stylistic crime film in 1996, at the height of the 90s independent film craze. Using the backdrop of a Texas landscape and combining its western motifs with a tense murder mystery, it delivers one of the finest films of its decade.
Lone Star also boasts an impressive cast, with western veterans such as Kris Kristofferson, Fargo star Frances McDormand, Matthew McConaughey, Elizabeth Peña, Chris Cooper and more. Fans who love a good mystery but need a southwestern kick, this seems like that perfect film for them.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (IMDB Score 7.4/10)
Vince Gilligan spent a few months in 2018 making this sequel film to Breaking Bad in total secrecy. The result was a film that acted as the perfect epilogue to one of the most critically-acclaimed television shows ever.
El Camino takes place directly after the final episode of Breaking Bad, “Felina,” and details Jesse Pinkman’s escape to normalcy after everything went to hell. Touching on themes of PTSD, betrayal and even redemption, Gilligan makes use of theatrical budget by delivering a gorgeously shot film. Aaron Paul’s acting is also a standout, showing the world that he could carry a story without Walter White. Echoing the likes of Drive and No Country For Old Men, El Camino is a satisfying goodbye to one of TV’s greatest stories.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (IMDB 7.4/10)
Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut about the death of an illegal immigrant in Texas is among the greatest of its genre. Starring Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, ad Dwight Yoakam, the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, with Jones winning Best Actor and Guillermo Arriaga winning for Best Screenplay.
It’s a daunting tale of morality, wrapped in a story told through flashbacks and presenting differing viewpoints of the same situation. It’s a masterful film that showcases Jones’s talent behind the camera.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (IMDB Score 7.5/10)
Sam Peckinpah has a reputation that exceeds him. Films such as Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch and Cross of Iron are all highly controversial films that feature graphic violence. What should also be noted of Peckinpah was his ability to convey that violence in highly stylish ways. Quick cuts and varied camera angle keep the action fresh and exciting.
Peckinpah took his knowledge of more traditional westerns and used it to deliver a film with a unique premise. Most neo-westerns are a cat and mouse game, this one changes it up to where the hunted is already dead. It’s a tense thriller that’s inspired countless films, including some on this list.
Hell or High Water (IMDB Score 7.6/10)
Director David Mackenzie (Outlaw King) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Wind River) delivered the perfect film to revitalize the western genre in 2016 with Hell or High Water. Starring Ben Foster and Chris Pine as two brothers who stage several bank heists to save their family ranch in Texas, it’s a story of how far the love and loyalty for family can go, come hell or high water.
Sheridan channels his love and expertise of westerns by delivering a pitch-perfect script so stylishly adapted by Mackenzie’s deft hands. It moves at a quick pace, with its cat-and-mouse story being one of the most exciting the genre has to offer, as a grizzled veteran of Texas law enforcement (played masterfully by Jeff Bridges) tries his damndest to catch them.
Brokeback Mountain (IMDB Score 7.7/10)
Ang Lee won his first Oscar for Best Director for the seminal love story, Brokeback Mountain. Set between 1963 to 1983, it stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist respectively, two ranch hands who developed an intense relationship. As they face pressures from outside prejudice and their own lives catching up to the relationship.
One of the most acclaimed films of the 2000s, Lee directed a sensitive and tragic portrayal of love against the backdrop of the midwest. It’s definitely the most romantic film on this list.
Logan (IMDB Score 8.1/10)
James Mangold dipped his toes into the western genre with his 2007 film 3:10 to Yuma. After his 2013 superhero flick, The Wolverine proved his proficiency with superhero films, he delivered Logan, Hugh Jackman’s last hurrah as the adamantium-fueled mutant.
It’s a mature, dark and action-filled odyssey through fatherhood, PTSD and mortality. It feels less like an ordinary superhero film and more like a western. Its gorgeous shots of desert coupled with references to classics like Shane. Jackman is in top form, delivering one of the most emotional performances in one of the most subdued comic book films ever made.
No Country For Old Men (IMDB 8.1/10)
The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, is easily one of the greatest films of the 2000s. From the excellent cinematography by Roger Deakins to Javier Badem’s Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men provides some great tension and questions of morality. After Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across $2 million dollars from a botched drug deal, he finds himself on the run from Chigurh’s reign of terror.
While the Coens would eventually direct two traditional westerns with True Grit in 2010 and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in 2018, this still remains a masterclass in neo-western filmmaking and among the greatest films ever made.