Best Western Movies on Netflix Right Now (May 2023)
Netflix may not have the deepest Western library, but it does offer refreshing takes on some of the West’s most essential themes and settings.
Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars might dominate the streaming wars, but platforms like Netflix are still saving a spot for a classic American film genre.
In fact, over the last few years, Netflix has released a handful of Western originals — films and series — that add new perspectives to what can often be well-worn, clichéd storylines.
The Western may be far removed from its peak popularity in the 1960s, but Netflix is helping keep the genre alive and well with their offering of Western films and series as of May 2023 — many of which are influenced by the best Spaghetti Westerns of decades past.
The Harder They Fall (2021)
Best Modern Western
Three words fill the screen before The Harder They Fall begins: “These. People. Existed.”
It’s a fictional tale, but one that portrays real-life black historical figures like Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), and Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi).
The takeaway is clear: history may well remember the Wyatt Earps and Wild Bills of the West, but black cowboys, lawmen and outlaws often go unnoticed, particularly in Western films and books.
Director Jeymes Samuel is out to change that.
“If you take away the narrow, white-male-centric stories we were given,” Samuel said in a podcast interview, “then that means you have a whole universe of stories with women of actual dominance, with people of color, all races. You have a whole genre.”
Samuel’s vision of the West is bold and violent, containing all the trappings of a typical Western — gunfights on horseback, steely-eyed showdowns, exploding buildings — against a social backdrop that touches on race, generational trauma and naturally, revenge.
The film’s highly stylized cinematography may not work for all viewers, but smart dialogue, a dope soundtrack, and the natural charisma of its cast makes The Harder They Fall a welcome departure from the status quo in more ways than one.
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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens to a fictional book of the same name, a collection of six tales from the frontier published in 1873. It feels like something stodgy your grandpa would watch while falling asleep, except this Netflix original was directed by the Coen brothers, so all is not as it appears.
The film’s six vignettes, which the brothers wrote over the span of some 20 years, tackle various aspects of life in the West, but all focus on the brutality and inevitably of death. In the title story, Buster Scruggs — the “the San Saba Songbird” played by Tim Blake Nelson — sets the tone early: the only rule in the West is that there are no rules.
Each story varies in length and depth; some come with quick, violent payoffs, and others burn slow while showcasing the brothers’ dark comedic efforts. Tom Waits is particularly memorable as an old prospector in “All Gold Canyon,” a tale based on Jack London’s 1904 story.
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, death is around every corner, but not always in the way you’d expect, making it one of the more refreshing Westerns on Netflix — or anywhere.
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The Hateful Eight (2015)
Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 masterpiece Django Unchained was the director’s first homage to Spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s, but he didn’t stop there: in The Hateful Eight, QT produced yet another Spaghetti Western style film that’s as biting as you’d expect.
The film tackles post-Civil War tensions in a rustic Wyoming stagecoach stop during a blizzard, and although the outside scenery sets the tone, most of the film is an indoors, stage-style narrative driven by crisp dialogue and slowly unraveling secrets.
The hateful eight are various characters brought to Minnie’s Haberdashery, including Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Though it can feel slow compared to traditional Westerns, the film builds momentum toward a graphic and anarchic resolution typical of Tarantino’s work.
The Hateful Eight‘s Spaghetti Western influences are most obvious in the score — composed by Ennio Morricone, who wrote the music for Sergio Leone‘s legendary Dollars Trilogy — and the way it was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, lending it a grittiness reminiscent of Leone’s films.
On Netflix, an extended version of The Hateful Eight is available as a 4-part series: it’s worth a watch whether you’ve seen the original cut or not, and breaking up such a long film into episodes makes it easier to digest.
Related read: 20 Wild West Towns Where You Can Still Experience the Frontier
In a Valley of Violence (2016)
Best Throwback Western
Director Ti West is best known for his horror films like The House of the Devil, X and Pearl, but in 2016, he took a stab (pun intended) at a Western with In a Valley of Violence.
The movie follows drifter and Indian Wars veteran Paul (Ethan Hawke) as he rolls into a near-ghost town, clashes with the locals and finds himself forced to deal with the situation the best he knows how.
In a Valley of Violence is a throwback film in more than one sense: it was filmed on 35-millimeter film, and maintains the nostalgic, grainy feel of West’s more signature movies. The score feels like it’s lifted right out of a ’60s Western — in the best way possible — and Hawke’s gravelly voice conjures images of Clint Eastwood and, well, Batman.
Hawke’s Paul is a likeable war vet likely suffering from PTSD, and John Travolta plays a credible U.S. Marshal with a wooden leg, but performances from the supporting cast lack the same conviction. The story gets more absurd and darkly funny as the movie progresses, and like any good Western, it has its share of biting dialogue.
“I know I promised you that I was done killin’,” Paul says at one point. “But I think I’m gonna have to break that promise.”
Related read: 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West
The Power of the Dog (2021)
The Power of the Dog is based on a Thomas Savage novel from 1967 that later influenced Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. Savage’s book wasn’t all that popular at the time, but it made for an excellent adaptation in the hands of director Jane Campion, who hadn’t directed a feature film since 2009’s Bright Star.
Her comeback was successful: The Power of the Dog racked up 12 Academy Award nominations, and audiences enjoyed the subtle power struggle between brothers played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons. The film takes place on a 1925 ranch in Montana, and though that sounds rugged, The Power of the Dog highlights how masculinity and loneliness in such a setting can do more harm than good.
It’s a slow Western with just enough action to keep the plot moving, but it’s a psychological drama more than anything. If you’re looking for shoot ’em up showdowns, head elsewhere.
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Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher (2021)
Best Western Inspired by a True Story
Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher is inspired by the true story of Montford T. Johnson, a 19th century Chickasaw cattleman who built an impressive spread in present day Oklahoma — what was then considered Indian Territory.
Johnson grapples with common problems of the day: rustlers, racism and Civil War conflicts that spill into tribal relations. It wasn’t an easy road for Johnson, but his is a story of perseverance if nothing else.
Montford was produced by Chickasaw Nation Productions, a platform created both to entertain and educate modern-day audiences on the history and culture of the Chickasaw Nation.
The acting and dialogue can be stilted, and at times the story lacks a strong forward direction, but as a way to introduce more viewers to the inspirational story of Montford Johnson and the struggles of Native Americans in that period, it’s a worthy endeavor.
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The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Best ’90s Western
Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven and Tombstone all came out in the years before The Quick and the Dead, so it’s not surprising this predictable but fun Western fell flat in the box office: there were big boots to fill back then.
From the start, the film pays homage to Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — the mysterious Lady (Sharon Stone) even rolls into town with squinted eyes and a teeth-clenched cigarillo — and its mix of close-ups and wide-angle shots completes the throwback Western feel.
The premise isn’t spectacular — the movie’s essentially a gunslingin’ tournament — and by the end, it starts to feel like Groundhog Day in the West. Still, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and up-and-coming Russell Crowe makes The Quick and the Dead enjoyable, as does Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the classic I-run-this-town villain.
It’s a caricaturized version of the West, complete with biblical themes of revenge and redemption (also the name of the town), but its cast and occasional searing lines of dialogue make it a worthwhile watch.
Related read: I’m Your Huckleberry: The Real Meaning of Doc Holliday’s Iconic Line
Best Animated Western
Don’t be fooled by the animation angle: Rango is as legit a Western as anything else on this list. Director Gore Verbinski saddled up his cast with real Old West dress and gear, and the film was shot in live action to get the vibes right.
The result? A damn good animated Western with plenty of adult humor and references. In fact, Johnny Depp based his character on Dr. Gonzo from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with nods to the late writer throughout the film.
Screenwriter John Logan also pays tribute to Westerns of yore: the Spirit of the West, a Clint Eastwood doppelganger who helps guide Rango through his journey, is voiced by Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood fame. It might be computer-animated, but Rango is a Western all the same.
The story in Rango centers on common Western themes, like water rights and revenge, and Depp’s chameleon wrestles with all kinds of internal demons he must eventually face.
“Doesn’t matter what they call you,” the Spirit of the West says in one scene. “It’s the deeds make the man.”
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Best Western Miniseries
The seven episodes that make up Godless allow series creator and director Scott Frank to explore archetypal Western themes with a depth that most two-hour films simply can’t swing.
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Frank admits he wanted to “embrace every single cliché” of the West, but frame them in his own way. And he did just that: Godless is in many ways a traditional Western, complete with gunfights and trainwrecks, but it centers on the community of La Belle, New Mexico, where a mining accident killed just about all the town’s men.
Concrete Cowboy (2021)
The father-son story in North Philly — based on G. Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy — centers around the community’s passion for horseback riding despite the surroundings and circumstances. It’s a gorgeously shot film that proves you don’t have to be in sparse desert landscapes to capture the feel of the West.
The tradition of horse riding in Philly dates back more than 100 years, and today the Fletcher Street club, a nonprofit, is still in the business of providing community members with a way to learn and bond with horses despite the economic conditions of the area.
The glimpse into a unique, largely unknown community is enough to make Concrete Cowboy memorable, but if you need more convincing, there’s this: Idris Elba. Enough said.
Related read: 22 Must-See Modern Western Movies from the Last 22 Years
My Heroes Were Cowboys (2021)
My Heroes Were Cowboys isn’t a Western, but it is a documentary about the bond between Robin Wiltshire and the horses he trains, and it’d be a disservice to leave the enigmatic short off the list.
The story focuses on Wiltshire’s journey of pursuing his dreams as a horse trainer, and today he works on the Turtle Ranch in Montana training horses and other animals for films and TV series. It’s a wholesome, aspirational short film that says as much about fortitude as it does horse training.
My Heroes Were Cowboys clocks in at a quick 23 minutes — enough to bring the story full circle, though more than reviewer said they could’ve easily taken in a full-length feature on Wiltshire’s story.
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Old West Favorites
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- 6 Tombstone Filming Locations You Can Still Visit Today
- 9 Fascinating Facts About Virgil Earp, Noble Lawman
D.T. Christensen is the founder and managing editor at OldWest.org, a history webiste committed to sharing and preserving stories and figures of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and also writes for Territory Supply.