The American West has always been fetishised by pop culture with its rugged, daunting terrains and mystic beauty. The genre rose to popularity in Hollywood from the early 20th century to the late 60s. Despite the subsequent decline of film style in recent decades, filmmakers continue to be fascinated and inspired by the area.
Western films typically have a very particular formula with tantalising soundtracks and the characteristic twang, high-strung action, melodramatic tension, and the lone wolf with a formidable set of enemies. Cinematography and well-stylised action make up a large part of its allure while adding to the beauty. From Sergio Leone to John Ford and Clint Eastwood, this brand filmmaking is enriched with unparalleled works of art.
Netflix, too, has a fairs hare of Western films that are well-shot and artistically created. Here are the 10 most beautiful Western films streaming right now, listed in no particular order.
The 10 most beautiful Western movies streaming on Netflix
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)
Although The Hateful Eight was first intended to be a sequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the filmmaker changed his mind and created a whole new set of characters. The film deals with Samuel L. Jackson as the bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren. On his travels, he encounters various folk on his way. During a blizzard, the tension is high, and they realise that everything is not what it seems.
Tarantino, provocative and inflammable, is a sucker for the Western genre. He later commented in an interview: “Obviously, I knew I was going to deal with the Civil War. But I didn’t know it would end up being so serious when it came to that issue.
“I was realising when I was watching it about [seven] weeks ago that this could almost be a post-apocalyptic movie, to some degree or another. It’s like this frozen wasteland, and the apocalypse has destroyed every semblance of their society and their way of life, and these survivors are huddled together in this pitiless wasteland shelter. And suddenly they’re all blaming each other for the apocalypse, but the apocalypse is the Civil War.”
The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976)
Clint Eastwood directed and played the titular character in this classic. He is an ex-Confederate guerilla war veteran who somehow forms a ragtag team of sorts while escaping the relentless pursuit of the Union soldiers and bounty hunters.
The film was released when the genre was firmly on the decline, but that didn’t stop it from becoming an instant hit. Steeped in Civil War politics, the film is an anti-war Western. Eastwood said that the film “saw the parallels to the modern-day at that time” where people get “tired of it, but it never ends”. Currently, this Western has been creating quite the buzz on Netflix.
Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)
A pet chameleon named Rango is left to fend for himself after he falls off his owner’s car. From there, he is quickly thrown into a town filled with anthropomorphic inhabitants in the Old West town of Dirt. He quickly becomes very popular due to his heroic feats and must save the townsfolk from the vicious clutches of the Rattlesnake.
An interesting, anthropomorphic take on the genre, a gunslinging, formidable chameleon is not what your quintessential Western hero looks like. However, the epic action scenes, the truckloads of pop-culture references, an incredible voiceover ensemble and stunning animation makes Rango an otherworldly movie experience.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 2018)
A Western anthology film with six different tales of violence, gore and madness in the Wild West, the film is a quintessential Coen brothers’ flick steeped in the surreal and dark chaos, humour and frenzy of the mystic West, exploring mortality, life and more.
The duo was unsure if they would make any of the six films and ended up combining them to make the film. Die-hard Western fans, in an interview about the film, the brothers spoke of how they connected the plots via the theme of mortality.
“Certainly at the point where we’d written three or four of them and thought we had almost enough to do as a feature, we started thinking consciously about what ties them together,” said Ethan Coen. “And clearly, that was death. Especially in the last one — the last story in the movie is the last one we wrote, and we were thinking, ‘What is going to feel like a finishing thing for this group?'”
Concrete Cowboy (Ricky Staub, 2020)
Based on Staub and Dan Walser’s screenplay, this 2020 piece of cinema revolves around the events after 15-year-old Detroit teen Cole goes to live with his estranged father Harp in North Philadelphia. There, he comes to terms with the cowboy subculture. Furthermore, he learns more about the abject poverty, violence, gentrification and oppression that has torn through the neighbourhood.
Starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in distinguished roles, the film boasts a splendid soundtrack. The story is intriguing and unique as a modern-day Western and is full of hope, loyalty and love. The violence threatens to shatter the pristine and delicate relationships, and somehow it is extremely well-stylised, deserving all the love and appreciation.
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West, 2016)
Starring John Travolta, Ethan Hawke and Taissa Farmiga, the film sees a town caught in a vicious crossfire between delinquents and local gangs, with the lone drifter paul being left with none but one ally.
With a strong cast and high-strung action, it is definitively one of Netflix’s best Westerns. In an interview, director Ti West said, “I love westerns. For me, the western is the most classic genre of American cinema. It feels completely ingrained in the cultural history of American filmmaking, and I really wanted to be part of that.”
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Described by Tarantino as one of the best films of the decade, this was one of PTA’s classic masterpieces that helped cement his legacy and helped Daniel Day-Lewis secure an Academy Award. The plot revolves around a ruthless mercenary Daniel Plainview who wants to become the most successful oil mogul and stops at nothing, even at the cost of manipulating his adopted son, who remains fairly oblivious to the elder’s scheming notoriety.
A fierce narrative and gripping plotlines are what made the film such an exceptional delight. PTA, an ardent fan of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a well-known western, explained how the film influenced him with the script.
“It’s a play between the three of them, but because of the setting and everything else, it’s really an adventure film, an action film,” he said, “I thought, ‘Fuck, alright, that’s good, you know?’ And really, more than anything else, it was a way to figure out how to economically tell a story because I knew that to try to tell the story, we weren’t going to have that much money to do it. So it was, ‘How to do kind of an epic story, but in a small way, with a few settings?'”
Hold the Dark (Jeremy Saulnier, 2018)
In this dark neo-western, a wolf behaviouralist is sent to the edge of civilisation in the harsh Alaskan wilderness by a mother of a six-year-old boy who has mysteriously disappeared in the wake of suspected wolf attacks on children.
It’s shot on an epic scale and reeks of harsh winters and gory violence. Saulnier said, “People paint this as a very grim movie, and I’m not gonna argue against anyone’s interpretation, but for me, I found it very cathartic to let go and forgive humans for all their atrocities and violent tendencies because this film lets you step out and really observe people as animals. Not in a brutal or uncaring way, but from an observational perch.
Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012)
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce and Jessica Chastain, Lawless is based on true events as documented in Matt Bondurant’s book The Wettest County in the World. The film is set during the Great Depression in Virginia, where three bootleggers are threatened with dire consequences by the new deputy authorities when they refuse to bribe them.
With a heavyweight ensemble cast, brilliant cinematography and a lovely soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the film is an absolute delight to witness. Hillcoat is a self-proclaimed Goodfellas fan and loves genre films. He said that although he was not actively looking to make a film set in the Prohibition era, he was looking for ways to make “an American gangster film”.
Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990)
The Union troupe Lieutenant John Dunbar is deemed a hero after their victory. He requests a position in the West where he befriends the native tribe and after certain life-altering experiences, begins to let go of his white man’s privilege.
The crew had to work in extreme weather conditions, but Costner was the perfect leader for the team. The cinematographer Dean Semler spoke of how he “never fumbled” and “knew exactly what he wanted for every scene. He had a real strong sense of what the movie should look like. I’ve worked with a lot more experienced directors who weren’t nearly as confident.”