Kevin Costner is one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading men thanks to his baritone voice, charismatic smile, and reserved manner. Starring in a vast array of genres over the years, Costner is best known for his work in Westerns. With his deep gravelly voice and southern twang, he’s played different kinds of cowboys and law enforcement for over four decades and currently stars in TV’s most popular one. The Paramount original neo-western series Yellowstone has swept across millions of television sets as it details the lives of the cowboys living on the Dutton Ranch in Montana, and Costner leads the pack as the wizened family patriarch, John Dutton.
Yellowstone isn’t Costner’s first rodeo, as he’s played just about every kind of cowboy, law enforcement agent, and outlaw that there is to play within the western genre. Whether it be taking place in the old wild west or modern times, there’s something about Costner that fits the rocky, brooding genre like a glove. Entering the film industry in the 80s, Costner’s career took off with the epic Western Silverado (1985), and he hasn’t slowed down since. While he’s also starred in defining classics like The Bodyguard, JFK, and Fields of Dreams, he’ll always be a cowboy first and foremost. Here are Costner’s 10 defining performances within the western genre and where to watch them.
Silverado marks Costner’s first time in the saddle as Jake, Jake, a young, naive cowboy who doesn’t know when to say when. The film stars Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, and Danny Glover as three very different cowboys in the old wild west trying to make it home to their families, but it’s Costner who steals the scene every time he shows up on camera. At the beginning of his career and not yet a leading man, Costner is a bright ball of young energy amongst all the sad and tortured cowboys, and his outlier performance helped ricochet him into stardom. It can be jarring to see Costner beaming with goofy smiles and dealing out one-liners as he didn’t yet have the reserved hardness he’d bring to future roles, but it’s clear from the gecko that he was meant to play cowboys.
Taylor Sheridan and Kevin Costner have brought the western back to prestige television with the epic family drama, Yellowstone. A Paramount network original, the series takes place on the Dutton ranch in Montana, the largest ranch in America and one of the most sought-after properties amongst land developers and the Indian reservation it borders. Costner plays John Dutton, the family patriarch with four headstrong children that he presides over with an unforgiving iron fist. A neo-western with plenty of shootouts, horseback riding, and soapy romance, Costner’s right at home as a scruffy, cynical cowboy holding onto his land by the skin of his teeth with nothing to lose. Thankfully there’s good news on the horizon as season 5 is slated to return on Sunday, November 13, 2022, airing on the Paramount Network.
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Wyatt Earp can be a floundering mess at times, but Costner does his best to save it as the legendary gunslinger and law enforcement officer. Taking on one of the most iconic figures to come out of the wild west in a three-hour epic, Costner is right at home playing the American legend. An origin story that contains various flashbacks and flash-forwards, Yellowstone actor Ian Bohen plays the young Earp in a full circle moment as we learn how he was raised by his strict, headstrong father played by Gene Hackman. Costner then takes over as the adult Earp, and the film embraces his origin story as he inevitably picks up a gun and finds glory in exacting justice by whatever means necessary despite his initial reservations about violence and killing.
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Dances With Wolves is Costner’s most acclaimed Western, and the sprawling 1990 epic finds him as John J. Dunbar, a Union Army Lieutenant venturing out to explore the untouched land on the American frontier. As he begins his post at the secluded frontier, he quickly strikes up a friendship with the nearby Lakota Native Americans and falls in love with the white woman Standing with Fist (Marcy McDonnell). The adopted daughter of Kicking Bird, played by Graham Greene, translates for them and Dunbar quickly becomes welcomed into their community. Danger ensues when Union soldiers arrive, and the film takes a somber turn as they prepare for what’s to come. The film won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Costner won the Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Director. In addition, Costner received a Best Actor nomination alongside both Graham Greene and Marcy McDonnell in the Best Supporting Actor categories.
Let Him Go is a quiet, lonesome Western that burns with suspense only to deliver a fiery, shocking third act that will have you on the edge of your seat. Costner plays George Blackledge, yet again another aging, reserved cowboy who lives on a ranch alongside his headstrong wife Margaret played by Diane Lane, and their newlywed son and family. Tragedy strikes when their son dies after falling off his horse, and his young wife Lorna (Kayli Carter) re-marries the abusive Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) who then whisks her away to North Dakota alongside her young son. Margaret becomes determined to rescue her grandson once she realizes the environment he’s growing up in amongst the Weboy clan, and she and George head out on a mission to bring him back home. The film is a biting, slithering slope of tense-filled diners and stakeouts, and Lane and Costner feed off each other’s energy to create a stirring tale of two unlikely heroes.
While the outfits may differ, Hatfields & McCoys, and Yellowstone share a lot in common. This time sporting a fur coat instead of a jean jacket, Costner plays Hatfield patriarch “Devil” Anse Hatfield, and his family enter a deadly feud against the McCoys amidst barnyards and dingy saloons. Based upon true events during the 1800s, the deadly rivalry between the two families lasted years and turned their feud into a legendary rift within American history. Starring opposite Bill Paxton as the patriarch of the McCoy family, Costner infuses his role with a calculating iciness as he and his family spread destruction across Kentucky and West Virginia.
Open Range (2003)
Open Range is an expertly crafted, love letter to the Western film genre and all its elegant creatures. Mother nature has never been captured with such a detailed eye as Robert Duvall plays Boss Spearman, a cattleman herding cattle across the country alongside his cow hands played by Costner, Abraham Benrubi, and Diego Luna. Set in 1863, Costner portrays embittered Union War veteran Charley Waite, and his skills come in handy once fellow cow hand Moses (Benrubi) is badly beaten when they make a stop in the town of Harmonville, where the coldhearted rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) lives. Baxter hates open rangers as their cows feed on his land, and he seeks violence against Spearman and Waite only to be greeted by vengeance when they seek retribution for all the damage he’s done.
A Perfect World (1993)
While Costner won all the glory for Dances With Wolves, A Perfect World is one of his greatest acting achievements. It’s rare that Costner gets to sink his teeth into a meaty, sinister role, and playing the escaped convict Robert “Butch” Haynes marks one of the few times he’s played a villainous role. Watching the film, you wish he’d had more opportunities to play the bad guy in the wild west rather than just the noble cowboys as he brings complex, quiet violence to the role. A modern-day outlaw with a heart of gold and one too many vices, he escapes the local prison alongside an unhinged inmate in the early 60s. Things go south when they attempt to steal a car in town and wind up kidnapping an 8-year-old boy (T.J. Lowther) as leverage, and the police quickly follow in hot pursuit. As Butch drives down the Texas dirt roads with the kid in tow, Clint Eastwood plays the Texas Ranger hunting them down alongside criminologist Sally Gerber played by Laura Dern. Directed by Eastwood, he injects the film with a steely western spirit and the film won critical acclaim across the board. A Perfect World came just before a string of box office bombs for Costner, and the simplistic, gritty portrayal he brings to the movie proves why he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation.
The Postman (1997)
The Postman is a strange fever dream that turns into a three-hour extravaganza of desert wars set in a post-apocalyptic world where cowboys and water are scarce. Based upon the 1985 novel under the same name written by David Brin, the film was a major box office bomb. Taking place in 2013, the fantastical neo-western finds Costner as an unnamed nomad who wanders the Utah wasteland with his donkey, and together he and his noble steed stop in towns to perform Shakespeare for the various townspeople. He’s eventually caught and imprisoned by the evil General Bethlehem (Will Patton) who leads a neo-fascist militia. The nomad eventually escapes and goes on the run in a former postman’s car, and Costner does the best he can with the material he’s been given. The nomad becomes known as “The Postman,” and Bethlehem is determined to stop him before he can create any semblance of a functioning government.
Two old pros off-screen come together to play two old pros on screen in The Highwaymen. Deconstructing the often-romanticized myth of mass-murdering real-life outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, The Highwaymen takes the unexpected turn of following the fuzz as they track down the destructive, Texas outlaws across bloody roads in 1930s America. Costner and Woody Harrelson play the two former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, and they may as well be old, weathered cowboys going out for one last epic ride before hanging up their saddles. Worried about public opinion, Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson enlists the duo to find Bonnie and Clyde before they cause any more damage, which proves to be a daunting task. Costner and Harrelson clearly love sharing the screen together as two retired cowboys in a dying west where outlaws no longer are legends but devils handing out death, and The Highwaymen debunks the glitzy glamour of being an outlaw.