How to Write a Modern Western: The New Wild West

The Western was one of the earliest cinematic genres and it has had a number of resurgences and reinventions over the last one hundred years. It’s a genre that through its popularity has continued to grow. But what does a modern Western look like?

Contemporary Westerns are typically genre hybrids. In this article we will use five different films that combine genres to form modern Western films.

  1. No Country For Old Men is a modern Western crime thriller.
  2. Hell or High Water is a modern Western heist movie.
  3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a modern Western drama and black comedy.
  4. Sicario is a modern Western action thriller.
  5. Logan is a modern Western superhero film.

These films teach us that the Western is a malleable genre and can work well in combination with other genres. In this article we’ll look at different aspects of the Western genre and examine how they can best be applied to the contemporary. These aspects will include:

So…

What is a Modern Western?

A modern Western is a genre that takes (all or aspects of) the themes, settings and plot/character archetypes of the traditional, classical Western genre and transplants them into a contemporary setting.

Not only will the setting be contemporary but so will the issues and themes the film seeks to address. Modern Westerns don’t only exist because of their traditional forebears but they exist to be in conversation with them.

Modern Westerns will try and contrast with old Westerns, demonstrating the changes that have occurred since the Western genre was at its peak (1940’s -60’s) and since the era it typically depicted (late 19th Century).

Themes of the Western

Westerns focus on the conflict between civilisation and lawlessness. Modern Westerns are able to explore this conflict in the modern era, an era in which the difference between tradition and modernity is more extreme.

The early Westerns (from the late 1930s) showcased the emersion of modernity, typically shown by the juxtaposition between the railway and the cowboys and farmers. 

In modern Westerns, we see the contrast between modern society, represented by technology, and the old traditions, characterised by farmers, cowboys and a relationship with the land.

Hell or High Water as a Case Study

A great example of the struggle between modernity and tradition features in Hell or High Water

As described in the clip above by Ben Foster, “it’s a film about small men in a big world trying to survive”.

Taylor Sheridan dubs the west, “its own rugged country”. The people are unchanged but the world is a much different place that has far exceeded the traditional Texas worldview.

A central theme of the modern Western is therefore the encroaching of civilisation on the wilderness and the impinging of modern views on traditional perspectives.

  • Various characters in Hell or High Water display resentment towards the banks, which are taking the land.
  • They also begrudge that traditional values are not being passed down through generations.
  • Further to this, the film’s protagonists, Toby and Tanner, rebel against modern society. Unless they can pay off a mortgage they will lose the land.
  • The plot of the film is that they rob the banks to pay them back with their own money. Society is trying to take away their traditional land and so they are resorting to crime and lawlessness in resistance, using the institution against itself.

Western Violence

Modern Westerns often question the morality of violence and vengeance. 

For example, Sicario presents and criticises the US Government’s use of torture.

  • Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro kills cartel members cruelly and sadistically in the search for revenge.
  • He ultimately becomes a villain threatening Emily Blunt’s law abiding FBI officer.

Logan, meanwhile, presents the devastating impact and ripple violence can have.

  • The Munson family suffer the consequences of violence merely for offering hospitality to Logan, Charles and Lauren.
  • This effectively demonstrates that violence impacts the innocent most of all.

The effectiveness of vengeance is also one of the main themes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

  • Mildred’s desire to find her daughter’s killer puts her on a relentless quest, which ultimately leads to death and pain for a number of characters in the film.

Modern Westerns present a more complicated picture of violence and its morality than their traditional forebears. Where traditional Westerns typically presented a simplistic view of ‘good guys’ vs ‘bad guys’, modern Westerns often question the morality of the supposed ‘good guys’.

Supposedly righteous and moral actions are shown to have devastating consequences for innocent people. Whilst corruption and deviancy is just as, if not more, likely to be found in the law as in those working outside it.

Western Grief

Another theme that appears often in Westerns is grief and the repression of grief.

  • In Three Billboards, for example, Mildred and her son are channeling their grief, over the death of their daughter/sister Angela, through anger.
  • Similarly, Toby and Tanner in Hell or High Water avoid talking about the death of their mother. Tanner also expresses anger towards his dead mother, stating that she never loved him anyway.
  • In Logan, Logan destroys a car in response to the death of Charles Xavier, again resorting to violence as an expression of grief.

Westerns are often a hotpot of repressed feelings and characters conveying these feelings through violent or vengeful actions. These violent and vengeful actions lead to the primary or key action of the film and drive the narrative.

Characters that are inarticulate about the grief they have suffered make for compelling protagonists (or supporting characters). The way in which they externalise their grief has consequences for those around them and in this chemistry a narrative can be born. This goes back to the very core of character arc construction, giving a character a want (to get over grief) and a way of trying to fulfil that want (the action they take).

The All Important Setting

The American Frontier is the traditional setting of the Western. Modern Westerns continue the feel of the Western landscape via settings of vast, beautiful, deserted, sprawling wastelands.

Small rural towns with a general sense of lawlessness or corruption within the law also feature, harking back to the myths of the American Frontier. The setting of a modern Western doesn’t always have to strictly be the American Frontier territory, however, as Three Billboards proves. The setting might be different but the context remains similar.

No Country For Old Men is set on the Texas border with Mexico. 

  • From the opening shot of the film, Roger Deakins’ cinematography shows how incredibly large and daunting the West can be. This sets the tone for a story in which mystery and eeriness is at the forefront. Much can happen in these deserted lands.

Logan begins in Texas and during the course of the film Logan travels north to North Dakota.

  • The isolated deserts in the film emphasise how off-grid and outside of society Logan is, as he has been hiding with Caliban and Charles in wilderness south of the border.

Texas is also the setting of Hell or High Water.

  • The cinematography emphasises the size of the landscape, particularly in the context of the two main characters. The characters are often presented dwarfed by the landscape that surrounds them, tiny specs in a vast space.
  • Furthermore, signs such as “closing down” and “debt relief” demonstrate how the modern world has effected this setting. The financial crisis of 2008 has plunged local businesses and people into financial strife. This sets the stakes for the story well, presenting a setting in which times are tough and people are desperate.
Hell or High Water landscape - Modern Western

Setting in Sicario

Sicario begins in Arizona with an introduction to the horrors of cartel violence. A shootout in a suburban house (a cartel stash house) ends with the discovery of a collection of corpses in the walls. This and the consequent explosion in the shed establishes the menace of the Mexican cartel.

Later in the film, Kate goes with the task-force to the Mexican city of Juarez.

  • As they enter the city in a motorcade, Kate sees the hanging, dismembered bodies of cartel victims hanging from the bridge. 
  • Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro remarks sardonically: ‘Welcome to Juarez’.

This setting is clearly dangerous. Shots of missing people posters and the presence of gunshots under Jóhann Jóhannsson’s incredibly tense score make it feel as though an attack is imminent and inevitable. The scene pulsates with atmosphere, building up the setting as intimidating territory for these characters to be venturing into.

Whilst the setting and style of that scene is distinctly modern, its heritage feels very much in the traditional Western. It’s a cowboy walking into a lawless, intimidating town. This scene in A Fistful of Dollars perfectly encapsulates the trope…

Characters in the Wild West

The Heroes

In Westerns, the heroes embody the law, and this is an important consideration in writing your modern Western protagonists. It’s vital to give the lawmen moral complexity and to have them question what is right and wrong.

  • In No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Cooper plays a sheriff on the edge of retirement. The modern world has left him behind and it leaves him scared and confused. 
  • Society has a similar effect on Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water and he finds himself questioning himself. He is tough talking but out of touch with the modern world.
  • Emily Blunt in Sicario is a lawful FBI agent. She sees her views shaken throughout the film and ultimately questions what is right and wrong, seeing those on the side of the law act unlawfully.

The heroes of modern Westerns are complex. As previously mentioned, the more traditional format of ‘good guys’ vs ‘bad guys’ feels retrograde, simplistic and often offensive (particularly when considering the portrayal of Native Americans in classic Western films).

Heroes in modern Westerns are heroes to the audience because of their ambiguity. They’re trying to figure out a complex world and find their place within it, as opposed to singularly fighting a moral, righteous crusade with an easy enemy to overcome. Instead, modern Western heroes are often seeking to overcome the enemy within themselves and within their supposedly lawful institutions.

The Outlaws

Another protagonist in modern Westerns is the Outlaw. These characters do not abide by the law but instead are presented as troubled heroes with a righteous end goal.

The modern day outlaw is exemplified by Mildred in Three Billboards. She’s a no-nonsense, badass, tough and stubborn character in search of revenge at all costs. She might be a character that is hard to like at times but her quest is one we can certainly empathise with. Put simply, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her.

Furthermore, the outlaws in Hell or High Water are the Howard brothers. Toby is stealing with a Robin Hood mentality, robbing from the banks to give his children a better life.

Tanner is doing it for his brother, and could be viewed as a “wildcard” character, he has a criminal past and is seeking forgiveness from his brother.

Old Man Logan the Outlaw

Logan is also an example of an outlaw. The film uses dialogue and themes from the 1953 Western Shane to demonstrate his inability to escape his past. 

“There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand that sticks. Now run on home to your mother, and tell her everything’s alright. There’s no more guns in the valley”

Laura’s Eulogy at the end of Logan

In the above eulogy, Laura highlights that Logan thought he was irredeemable, a message which Laura and the other X-23s’ survival may contradict.

Modern Westerns force the audience to question who among the heroes and outlaws is right and who is wrong.

Mildred in Three Billboards acts in direct opposition to the lawmen played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who in a reversal of the heroes and outlaw tropes, are presented as bigoted and out of touch.

Similarly, in Hell or High Water the dual protagonists are in direct opposition as the lawmen are tasked with finding the bank robbers. Neither side is presented as the antagonist and the audience are given plenty of reasons to root for both sides.

The Villains

The ‘Man in Black’ is a common trope in Western films. He’s the amoral antagonist, a devil incarnate, usually depicted in a black costume. An example of ‘The Man in Black’ is Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigur in the Coen Brothers’ Western, No Country For Old Men.

Chigur is a terrifying and persistent antagonist. The Man in Black is also mysterious; we never learn anything about him, nor do we need to. He remains a chaotic evil and unstoppable force, making us dread for the life of Llewelyn Moss.

The villains in classical Westerns such as The Searchers were often the indigenous inhabitants of the land, the Native Americans. Modern Westerns tend to criticise this prejudiced attitude by focusing on the hypocrisy inherent in the ‘lawmen’.

Such examples in modern Westerns’ include the Mexican cartel in Sicario.

  • The cartel are depicted as violent and ruthless. But they also sit alongside the violence, betrayal and conspiracy perpetuated by the American DEA, CIA and FBI.
  • Whilst the cartel operate outside the law, the Americans operate within the law but still break it.
  • Both sides commit wrongdoings, but one is government sanctioned and the other isn’t.

Moreover, modern Westerns are also more likely than their forebears to present context for villains such as the cartel. Why are such characters driven to violence and lawlessness? What is the context that takes the sole responsibility for their actions off their shoulders? Modern Westerns will often seek to answer these complex questions.

Plotting the Modern Western

So far in this article, we have explored the characters, themes and settings that typically feature in a modern Western.

However, it’s also important to look at the typical structure of modern Westerns. Of course, you can adapt and mould this however you see fit. But a familiar pattern can be helpful in guiding your narrative’s direction.

This follows a typical story structure beat sheet but we’ve highlighted exactly how these beats are often hit in a modern Western.

1. Start with a Bang

Instead of a slow set up almost all of the aforementioned modern Westerns begin with some form of action scene or shootout.

  • No Country For Old Men starts with the beginning of Anton Chigurh’s killing spree.
  • Hell or High Water opens with the first bank robbery.
  • Sicario begins with a raid and shootout, then leading to a horrifying discovery of bodies hidden in a wall.
  • Whilst Logan begins with Logan waking to find his car being jacked, then being shot as he confronts the robbers, then springing back into action and fighting them off.

2. The Inciting Incident

The Western often sees an opportunity presented to the protagonist. This will shape the protagonist‘s upcoming journey and kick the story’s primary narrative arc into gear.

  • Llewelyn Moss finds a bag full of money in No Country For Old Men.
  • The inciting incident in Logan is the task of taking Laura to Eden.
  • In Sicario, Kate is offered an opportunity in the drug taskforce.
  • Whilst in Hell or High Water Jeff Bridges is assigned with catching the bank robbers we saw in the opening scene.

3. The Bumpy Journey

The bumpy journey consists of the building and complicated battle between the protagonist and antagonist forces. Here we see just how dangerous the antagonist force is and how hard the upcoming journey for the protagonist is going to be.

The setting and its landscape also plays a crucial role in this part of the story. For example, in Hell Or High Water, Logan, Sicario and No Country For Old Men, the bumpy journey consists of an extended chase across the ‘Wild West’.

4. The Midpoint

At the midpoint of the modern Western, the protagonist is faced with another choice. Their loyalty or resilience is called into question and they have to decide whether to give up or not.

  • In No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss decides to persist in running from Anton Chigurh.
  • In Sicario, Kate has to choose whether to leave the taskforce or take part in the final mission.
  • Logan can choose to help the X-23s or live a peaceful life himself, leaving them to die.
  • Whilst in Hell or High Water, The Howard Brothers know they need more money, but have to decide if they wish to persist in their bank robbery spree.

5. The Shootout or Stand Off as the Final Battle or Climax

The plot of a modern Western builds up to a final battle. This is either a stand off or a shootout. The stakes are life and death.

  • In the final battle in Sicario, Benicio Del Toro finally gets his revenge over the leader of the drug cartel in a standoff at the leader’s family dinner table.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri replaces the shootout/standoff with the burning down of the police station.
  • In Hell or High Water, the law has caught up with the brothers and Tanner has to sacrifice himself to save his brother in a deadly shootout.
  • The X-23s have to fight off their pursuers with Logan and Laura’s help in Logan.
  • Whilst the actions of Llewelyn Moss throughout No Country For Old Men come back to haunt his wife as Anton Chigur uses his famous coin flipping technique to determine whether she will live or die.

6. Catharsis

The aftermath brings catharsis. The main characters have changed but so has the world. Civilisation has won and modernisation is defeating the West.

Sicario is a prime example of how the world changes for the hero in the modern Western. Kate is traumatised. Her introduction into the world of drug espionage has left her a shadow of her former self and now she is faced with the choice: should she sign off on the events as legitimate, or die?

The taskforce and Benicio Del Toro’s character represent modernisation in drug enforcement. This scene therefore shows the corruption of the innocent at the hands of the new normal. Refusal to conform will result in death.

This is similar to Tommy Lee Cooper’s speech at the end of No Country for Old Men and the meeting of Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water. The world has outgrown the characters. They look back on the events of the film with confusion and frustration; they have lost the world that they knew and now each of them face an uncertain retirement and future.

To Conclude

The modern Western is a genre with a multitude of themes to explore in exciting and entertaining ways.

Daunting wastelands overwhelm the audience as well as the characters within the story. In a landscape of frontiers, characters gaze out into the distance, trying to imagine a hopeful future.

Complex characterisation is perhaps the most important element of a modern Western. Contemporary audiences demand more complicated and nuanced depictions of two warring sides than classic Westerns usually portrayed.

Typically, such films thrived on the simplistic depiction of good vs bad. In modern Westerns such a distinct line is hard to identify and the protagonists are at the very frontier of trying to distinguish this line for themselves.

In this guide we’ve provided you some much needed sustenance in the journey through the deserted wasteland that can be the empty page. If you follow these guidelines about plot, themes, character and setting, hopefully you’ll be riding off into the sunset on your way towards a successful modern Western script.

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This article was written by Benjamin Hewitt and edited by IS Staff.

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