Since at least 1903 when audiences ran screaming from movie theaters because they had never experienced anything quite like The Great Train Robbery, the Western has been one of film's most significant genres. From the early days of The Covered Wagon (1923) to the so-called Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Corbucci (Django) and Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) to the Anti-Westerns of Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) and the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), the fearsome landscape of the heart has been cast against the unforgiving mesas and painted plateaus of the West. Once you've had your fill of the best dramas on Netflix, squint your eyes like the Man with No Name and ride into our list of the best Western movies and tv shows on Netflix (US):
Ken Burns Presents: The West
Only when you are able to complete all eight episodes, totaling 12 hours, of the mammoth historical triumph that is Ken Burns Presents: The West, can you start wearing a cowboy hat and talking like you know what was up with the West.
The English Patient auteur Anthony Minghella set his sights on the Civil War in 2003, and the triumvirate of Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger loaded, cocked, and pulled the trigger (respectively). From Sydney Pollack being a producer to Jack White making a special guest appearance, there are so many small, special things about this epic movie that you’ll want to watch all two and a half hours of it again and again.
Yeah, it’s a family drama; sure, it’s kind of like a moralist Scarface with odd-couple vibes; but really, Vince Gilligan’s now-legendary story of a terminally ill chemistry teacher turned crystal meth kingpin is basically a Sergio Leone movie in 62 episodes.
Sons of Anarchy
Horses are replaced with choppers in FX’s epic, 92-episode neo-Western about the efforts and exploits of an outlaw biker gang. Outstanding performances by Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Katey Sagal (Married... with Children), and Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and technical advising from real Hell’s Angels, elevate what could have been a misanthropic circle-jerk into modern Shakespeare territory.
A moment of praise for the low-budget indie Western: If you can successfully execute a period piece for $2,000,000, as Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, Night Moves, Old Joy) here manages to do with flying colors, you’re basically unfuckwithable. This woman-centric reimagining of the ill-fated caravan story sees a never-better Michelle Williams blasting her way into the legendary ranks of Katherine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Katy Jurado (High Noon), and Marlene Dietrich (The Spoilers).
Hell on Wheels
AMC’s massive, five-season undertaking is an examination of the bodies that built the Transcontinental Railroad. Stark and unforgiving, it’s not quite as monumental as something like Deadwood, but it’s exactly the kind of action you’ll crave after finishing Ken Burns Presents: The West.
A&E’s "highest-rated original drama series of all time" didn’t find much of an audience on cable, but Seasons four to six of this adaptation of Craig Johnson’s best-selling Walt Longmire Mysteries series were right at home on Netflix, where things could be a lot less “viewer discretion advised” and a lot more commercial-free. Robert Taylor’s languid turn as the stiff-upper-lipped Longmire makes for an outstanding throwback to the Western sheriffs of yore.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
The last time a Bonnie and Clyde story looked this good, it was starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek (Badlands). Star-crossed romances are seriously stupid and selfish, but shot by Bradford Young (Arrival, Solo: A Star Wars Story), they sure are sexy.
The fact that Tommy Lee Jones’s two best Western characters, Sheriff Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men and rancher Pete Perkins in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, aren’t on Netflix, is mitigated by the fact that this Palme d'Or-selected drama, directed by Lee Jones himself, sure is. Oh, and Hilary Swank’s turn as the educated loner Mary Bee Cuddy is freaking stellar.
The Hateful Eight
Sure they’re stylish and substantial, but the best part about Tarantino films is that you get exactly what you pay for. A three-hour post-Civil War stagecoach procedural featuring the ensemble talents of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, and Walton Goggins? This is no more and no less than exactly that.
Hap and Leonard
James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams make a pretty great odd couple—a draft dodger and a gay Vietnam vet—in SundanceTV’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s madcap novel series. One part True Detective, one part Dukes of Hazzard, it’s the perfect Revisionist Western for the Golden Age of TV: two superb actors blowing the saloon doors off of pre-established notions of pulp-noir masculinity.
Godless is a great name for Netflix’s radical reimagining of the Western serial: It’s No Gods No Masters meets #nodads. Technically it’s misleading, though, because Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) and Sam Waterston (Law and Order) are titans of TV.
One of the best movies of 2017 was this understated detective story set on the titular Eastern Shoshone/Northern Arapaho reservation in Wyoming. Elements of the murder mystery and noir genres abound, but it’s the incisive way writer-director Taylor Sheridan examines justice, otherness, and male fragility that puts this sleeper-hit starring Jeremy Renner squarely in Western territory (both literally and figuratively).
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.