Kevin Costner Never Should Have Done Any Westerns
Kevin Costner's success with Western films has caused him to retreat to the genre whenever his career falters.
More than any other living actor, Kevin Costner is associated with Westerns, so much so that he seems to be singlehandedly resurrecting the genre across multiple streaming platforms. The colossal success of Yellowstone (along with its increased number of spin-offs and thematic successors like Tulsa King and The Abandons) has once again cemented him as the king of squinting men in cowboy hats, but the genre has also been his downfall as an artist. Although it has led to his greatest commercial victories, that success has ultimately confined Kevin Costner to Westerns and nothing else.
Kevin Costner has been making Westerns for so long that it is easy to forget that he used to actually work in an extraordinarily broad range of genres. However, the critical acclaim and box office grosses that Costner has consistently (though not universally) received via the genre seemed to have convinced the star that every time he stumbles, he needs to get back on the horse, literally.
Somewhere along the line, Kevin Costner seems to have come to view Westerns as his failsafe. After spending the early 1980s in supporting roles, often uncredited or with character names like “Frat Boy #1,” Costner got his first leading role in Fandango, a Vietnam-era coming-of-age story written and directed by Kevin Reynolds (who would go on to be a crucial collaborator, then nemesis). But it was Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado, an ensemble Western that provided his breakout role as a hot-headed, hard-living cowboy that could not have been further from his eventual image as America’s uncool, overly sincere Dad.
Tellingly, after Silverado, Kevin Costner did not immediately put his stake down on Westerns. Instead, he followed it up with a true-life gangster movie (The Untouchables), a Cold War thriller (No Way Out), and two different baseball films, one a sex comedy (Bull Durham) and the other a strange piece of Baby Boomer magical realism (Field of Dreams) that somehow became a cultural touchstone. Clearly, when Kevin Costner feels ambitious, he does not stick to Westerns.
Then came Dances with Wolves, his staggeringly successful directorial debut. It won him seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and grossed $424 million, but still, he did not seem to consider himself tied to cowboy movies. For the rest of the 1990s, he jumped from genre to genre: post-apocalyptic science fiction (Waterworld), romantic drama (The Bodyguard), conspiracy thriller (JFK), Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle). Kevin Costner’s lone foray into Westerns for 13 years following Dances with Wolves was Wyatt Earp, also one of his notable failures at the time.
As the critics turned on Kevin Costner and the box office grosses went down, he turned more frequently to Westerns. After being at the very apex of Hollywood and seeing status slip away, the urge to return to a sure thing must be overwhelming, and it certainly seems that Costner succumbed to it. His return to roles involving big hats became more and more frequent as the 2010s went on until his lead role in Taylor Sheridan’s show about a family of rich ranchers gave him a definitive latter-day image.
True to form, Kevin Costner is sticking with Westerns even as his time at Yellowstone is rumored to be running short. Gone are the days when he would attempt to make an entirely aquatic sci-fi flick or play a suburban dad serial killer or a casino robber who might be Elvis’s illegitimate son. His next project is an expansive epic film titled Horizon, starring Jena Malone, Luke Wilson, Danny Huston, and many others; unsurprisingly, it is all about the westward colonization of America or a “Western.”
There was a time when Kevin Costner tried just about every modern genre of cinema there is, but Westerns stopped all that. It might be his most commercially successful decision, but it killed everything else for him.