Required Viewing: When Great Directors Make Westerns

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We tend to associate our favorite auteurs with “serious cinema” — high-minded dramas that don’t delve too far into goofy genres like sci-fi, horror, or westerns. But recently, watching Kelly Reichardt’s fantastic new western Meek’s Cutoff, we got to thinking about how many important mainstream and independent filmmakers have tried their hand at the genre. Our list of must-watch westerns by great directors (excluding those who are known primarily for their westerns, like John Ford and Sam Peckinpah) is after the jump.

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff

Like all of Reichardt’s movies, Meek’s Cutoff is a work of minimalism. Fixed on a small group of Oregon trail travelers and their wild, incompetent guide as they get lost and capture a Cayuse Indian who is leading them either to water or their demise. Reichardt wrings strong performances out of her cast, led by Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood, and her attention to detail is remarkable: In a Q&A at Film Forum a few weeks ago, she mentioned that she shot the movie in the increasingly rare 4:3 aspect ratio to emulate the narrow view through the women’s bonnets and covered wagons.

Nicholas Ray, Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Ray and Joan Crawford team up to make a western. What more do you need to hear? The film’s titular hero, played by Sterling Haden, who swoops in to save his former lover, Vienna (Crawford), from the clutches of a robber and the murderous rage of townspeople livid over her support for building a railroad near their small, Arizona town. Its quirky characters and unique style have made it one of cinema’s most influential films, winning fans among everyone from French New Wave directors to Pedro Almodóvar.

Robert Altman, McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Equal parts western film and visual poem, McCabe & Mrs. Miller follows the gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) as he takes charge of a tiny frontier town, opening a brothel with the help of an English madam named Constance Miller (Julie Christie). McCabe’s crusade against a mining company that wants to buy up the entire village is set against the icy beauty of a Northwest winter (the film was shot in British Columbia) and soundtracked by the dark, wistful songs of Leonard Cohen.

The Coen Brothers, True Grit

By returning to Charles Portis’s 1968 novel True Grit, the Coen Brothers — America’s undisputed masters of making genre films that captivate all cinephiles — justified their remake of a film that won John Wayne an Oscar. Their fast-paced script, talented cast (featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and newcomer Hailee Stanfield), snappy dialog, and compelling story elevates one girl’s quest to avenge her father’s murder far above its predecessor.

Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man

To say Dead Man was polarizing when it came out, in 1995, would be a massive understatement. While a few vocal critics lauded the black-and-white parable, many panned the film as entirely impenetrable. Johnny Depp stars as a Cleveland accountant named William Blake, who journeys to the frontier, gets himself shot, the bullet wedged against his heart, and meets an Indian named Nobody. That’s when things really start to get weird — and bloody.

Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain

Like the Coens, Ang Lee is something of a genre chameleon, jumping from suburban family drama (The Ice Storm) to Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility) to martial arts epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to comic-book blockbuster (Hulk) with varying degrees of success. Lee had, in fact, already made the western-flavored Ride with the Devil half a decade before Brokeback Mountain brought Annie Proulx’s gay-cowboy short story to the big screen. Spanning 20 years, the Academy Award-nominated film followed the 20-year relationship between a rodeo rider (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a ranch hand (Heath Ledger) whose lives diverge, tragically.

Arthur Penn, Little Big Man

Arthur Penn was always obsessed with American mythology — he did, after all, make 1970’s Little Big Man right after Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant. The western comedy unfolds as 121-year-old cowboy Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) tells his life story, from a happy childhood among his Cheyenne kidnappers to life in Custer’s army and an encounter with Wild Bill Hickok. But Little Big Man isn’t just a story; like many of Penn’s films, it has a political edge, drawing a parallel between Crabb’s tales of the American military’s slaughter of Native Americans and the war in Vietnam.

John Sayles, Lone Star

One of American cinema’s most erratic directors (but also one of its most talented), John Sayles is responsible for films ranging from sci-fi/blaxploitation mash-up The Brother from Another Planet to indie kids’ movie The Secret of Roan Inish. His 1996 western, Lone Star, is a murder mystery set in Frontera, Texas, where new sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates the death of a former sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) — and the extent his own father’s (Matthew McConaughey) involvement in it. Critics praised Sayles for the film’s vivid characterizations and stark atmosphere.

Takashi Miike, Sukiyaki Western Django

Although he might not be as well known in the US as the other directors on this list, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is certainly a master of the cinema. Known for such violent spectacles as Ichi the Killer and Audition (his most famous film internationally), Miike makes several features a year and often strays from his roots in horror. As its title suggests, Sukiyaki Western Django is his homage to spaghetti westerns. But Miike makes his wildly referential Sergio Leone tribute distinctly Japanese, transporting his cowboy tale to an undefined moment in the country’s past and the real-life war between the Genji and Heike clans. If you like your bloodbaths mixed with a heaping helping of laughs, Sukiyaki Western Django may be for you.

Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo

Speaking of Japanese westerns, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which certainly had its impact on Miike’s film) may look like a martial-arts movie at first glance. But this tale of a lone samurai (Toshirō Mifune) who rides into a town ruled by warring gang lords is straight out of the classic western canon. In fact, Kurosawa cited the films of John Ford as a major inspiration for Yojimbo. Subsequent westerns, in turn, looked to the Japanese director’s oeuvre for material; in 1960, John Stuges made The Magnificent Seven, a cowboy adaptation of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.