For my 200th review I’m marking the occasion with a personal favourite subject: the best villains in Western movies and TV!
I never wanted to be a Disney princess – except the Little Mermaid, but give me a break, mermaids are f*cking cool. For me, it was always all about the villains. The villains have the best storylines, they never give up their dreams for some stupid prince, and they always get to taste ultimate power and then go out with a hella dramatic bang.
You just can’t have a good story without a great bad guy. And for some reason, the Old West is full of stories about bad guys named Frank.
Anyway. Please join me in celebrating the best villains in Westerns, in no specific order. And because I love villains SO MUCH, I’ve also included a roundup of honorable mentions. You’re welcome.
The Best Villains in Westerns
1. Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under (1990)
I don’t really have to make a case for the star power of Alan Rickman, but here we go. Rickman’s turn as Elliot Marston is a masterclass in villainy. He’s powerful, refined, horribly racist, and used to getting his way. You get Rickman’s trademark lip-curling sneer, a glorious-yet-douchey moustache, and of course, Tom Selleck throwing him through a window. Marston’s pursuit of Aboriginal genocide should land him in the top of any ranking.
2. Gene Hackman in The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Gene Hackman is SO F*CKING GOOD at being bad, he’s on this list twice. What’s great about Hackman is that he actually has a sweet face, so he’s capable of making you want to trust him – and then shattering your hopes with remorseless brutality. In The Quick and the Dead Hackman is a triple villain: Herod controls the town, he treats Leonardo DiCaprio like shit, AND he murdered Sharon Stone’s daddy.
3. Peter Sarsgaard in The Magnificent Seven (2016)
What can I say about Bartholomew Bogue? This is a terrifying villain, because he’s not what you’d expect. He’s not huge and scary, nor expertly skilled at fighting or shooting. He’s a slight, drug-addled Southern dandy who gets off on money, power, and murdering anyone who gets in his way. The clip is a huge spoiler, so don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the movie!
4. Chris Pratt in The Kid (2019)
I never in a million years thought I’d be singing the praises of Chris Pratt as a bad guy, but this performance as Grant Cutler deserves the HIGHEST of praise. He is brutishly violent, with no qualms about beating women and children. And he does this insanely sinister scene where he delivers a monologue about a bluebird. If you haven’t seen him in this movie, you need to get on it right away.
5. Michael Biehn in Tombstone (1994)
Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday is one of my favourite Western performances of all time – and it was made possible by Michael Biehn’s playing opposite him as the eloquent, wild-eyed Johnny Ringo. This man doesn’t say much, but when he deigns to chime into a conversation he intimidates those around him with bible quotes, Latin, and generally foreboding comments. Biehn manages to make Ringo every bit as memorable as Holliday and Wyatt Earp.
6. Gian Maria Volonté in For a Few Dollars More (1964)
El Indio is one hell of a Western character. He’s swarthy, thuggish, and totally fine with doing all kinds of torture, assault, and murder. Most villains do enjoy those activities. But the way his eyes go kind of vacant during his haunted flashbacks, and the Golem-like way he cups his musical timepiece… that’s unique to Gian Maria Volonté and his ability to command a scene.
7. Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men (2007)
I don’t know if there is a villain in all of cinema more terrifying than Anton Chigurh. His face is so completely deadpan and dead-eyed, his manner so completely casual. Even his hair gives me the heebie-jeebies. He is the last person you’d want to meet in a dark alley – or even in a brightly lit public space in the middle of the day.
8. Wes Studi in The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
I wish there was a movie just about Magua, because THIS is an interesting villain. His goal might be revenge, but often his actions seem pretty justified, given his past treatment. Wes Studi effortlessly shifts between a hatred for white people and flat-out disinterest in them as fellow humans. There should be more great clips celebrating Magua as he chops British colonists to pieces, but I had to settle for this one where he merely insults them.
9. Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained (2012)
What is it about extremely rich and extremely racist Southern gentlemen that makes them so scary? Leonardo DiCaprio gives you these epic levels of refinement and fury that capture the villainous side of privilege. This is the polar opposite of cocky baby Leo, who I totally had a crush on in The Quick and the Dead. When filming the scene below, he actually sliced his hand open but never broke character so they could get the take.
10. Jeff Daniels in Godless (2017)
A great villain needs to be able to monologue like nobody’s business. Jeff Daniels as Frank Griffin gives you a man who is 100% sure of himself, so utterly convinced that he is right and that he is the law, that he somehow makes his violent quest unstoppable for a REALLY long time. He’s a rapist, a mass murderer, and one seriously sadistic man.
11. Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
It’s really messed up when a bad guy makes you want to follow him around. Russell Crowe as Ben Wade is alarmingly chill about killing people, but he’s also ridiculously charming and well-mannered. That casualness is what makes him deadly. I don’t know how he does it. The character has so many layers, and has this way of looking at a person that shows a deep pool of backstory behind Wade’s eyes.
12. Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
There’s nothing quite so dastardly as slaughtering a sweet little pioneer family of gingers, and Henry Fonda does it with icy aplomb at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West. This performance as Frank is so gritty and mean, it makes you wish Fonda had done more than two bad guys in his entire career.
13. Stephen Dorff in Old Henry (2021)
Stephen Dorff is another actor I wouldn’t have expected to put on any kind of Western list, but he definitely deserves his spot for this performance as Sam Ketchum. The way he delights in murder from the start of the movie right through his epic final moments is just outstanding. He gets bonus points for how hard it is to kill him.
14. Gene Hackman in Unforgiven (1992)
I’ve previously described Hackman’s performance as Sheriff Bill Daggett as “arrogant, brutal, sinister, and all other things villainous” – so obviously he had to be on this list. Here, Hackman is practically drunk on power, relishing any opportunity to be in the spotlight, and demoralizing his foes while he beats them to a pulp to send a message.
15. Christopher Heyerdahl in Hell on Wheels (2011-2016)
Hell on Wheels is not my favourite Western TV series, but it’s got some really strong points and Christopher Heyerdahl as The Swede is one of them. This is a villain who starts out as a lackey, and takes so many kicks that when he snaps, he goes all the way off the rails. And you can’t seem to get rid of him – he just keeps coming back, stronger than last time.
16. Danny Huston in The Proposition (2005)
This movie is probably the most violent Western I’ve ever seen, and at its brutal core is Danny Huston. He plays Arthur Burns, a man who is hated and hunted for VERY good reasons. He approaches villainy like he’s crafting a symphony of suffering and death, weaving his narrative and choosing his cast of unwilling victims with the care of an artist.
17. Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
Now this is a serious villain. Angel Eyes is like a cat playing with its prey before the kill, the way he draws it out and watches them squirm. The combination of Van Cleef’s simmering squinted glare and Sergio Leone’s unflinching closeups make for a performance that became a mold for future Westerns. I do wish he was in more of the movie.
18. Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (2021)
A man hiding a dark secret can be deadly. Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank is a bad guy like no other on this list. He is a ruthless bully who only hints at violence, keeping everyone at his ranch in a grip of fear through vicious emotional abuse. You spend the entire movie on edge, waiting for him to snap and kill someone. The movie isn’t a typical Western for fans of the genre, but Cumberbatch is unquestionably a Western villain.
19. Bill Nighy in Rango (2011)
Whether he’s performing live or in this case, animated, Bill Nighy is a legend. And his voice is deliciously sinister as the creature feared most by the residents of Dirt: the gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake. He packs the classic bad guy tropes and then some, because he’s threatening in size, skill, AND verbal intimidation.
Read the full review here.
20. Kirk Douglas in The Villain (1979)
Most people are going to disagree with me, but if you are the villain in a movie literally called The Villain, you are worthy of top ranking. Kirk Douglas steps way out of his usual realm to deliver a ridiculously comical performance straight out of Looney Tunes. The movie is next-level stupid in the best way possible, and Douglas is insanely enjoyable.
Read the full review here.
These Western villains didn’t make my personal top picks, but I still love the heck out of them and couldn’t bear to write a roundup that didn’t include them. They managed to make their mark with smaller roles and less screentime, and live forever rent-free in my mind.
Here’s my shortlist of honourable mentions.
- Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – Excellent performance by Marvin, but nowhere near enough story for his character.
- Leonard Nimoy in Catlow (1971) – Nimoy is commanding as baddie Miller, but he’s only in the beginning and end of the movie.
- Ben Foster in Hostiles (2017) – Racist, cruel, and extra creepy, Foster handily delivers a nasty little bad guy who you really want to see die.
- Liam Neeson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) – Neeson doesn’t speak a word in this harrowing short, and commits a truly horrible act.
- Ian McShane in Deadwood (2004-2006) – This performance is epic, and the ONLY reason he doesn’t top my list is because he isn’t always bad.
- The troglodytes in Bone Tomahawk (2015) – If you’ve seen this movie, the troglodytes are still giving you nightmares. Period.
- Jeremy Irons in Appaloosa (2008) – Another one who almost makes the top ranking, his turn as Randall Bragg is an underrated must-see.
- Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957) – Amazing performance and a great role, but she’s more like a retiring mob boss than a true villain.
- Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris in Westworld (2016-2022) – It’s a glorious one-two punch of a soft spoken old man who likes to play God, and a lean, mean old killing machine in black.
- Powers Boothe in Tombstone (1994) – His Curly Bill is an unrepentant bad boy with loose on morals who stands out in an all-star cast, but he’s also kinda lovable.
- Michael Gambon in Open Range (2003) – He’s an Irish immigrant risen to power, with a serious hate-on for free grazers; Gambon is a force in his scenes, but a lot of his dark deeds are carried out by others.
- Eric Schweig in The Missing (2003) – From his physicality to his delivery, Schweig makes Chidin almost paranormal, and frequently terrifying.
- Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma (2007) – Foster seems meant to play creepy, vicious sidekicks and here he’s at the top of his game in that regard.
- Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954) – Great turn as a jealous, rage-fueled woman who riles up a righteous lynch mob against her nemesis.
- Alfred Molina in Maverick (1994) – Molina is a master of his craft, and his performance as Angel is tightly wound anger with a side of physical comedy.
- Gerald McRaney in Deadwood (2016-2022) – Another rich, powerful white guy, Hearst is the series’ first true antagonist and he unarguably changes Deadwood forever.
- Ian MacDonald in High Noon (1952) – The whole plot is hinged on the countdown to evil Frank Miller’s arrival, but at times the real villains seemed to be the town… and that damn clock…
- Barry Pepper in True Grit (2010) – Ned Pepper is not a very good bad guy in either version of the movie OR the book, but he’s still critical to the story and this is a great performance.
Do you think I missed an epic Western villain? Come join my Facebook group and tell us about it. It’s where the cool kids are hanging out.