Top 10 Woody Harrelson Films

American crime writer James Ellroy once described Texan-born screen star Woody Harrelson as a “wild ass” – a man with an “extremely cocky sense of self” who sees his life as “one big joke with him at the centre of it”. Mark Fraser bears all this in mind while looking at 10 of the actor’s most interesting movie appearances.

10. Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997)

Woody Harrelson - Wag The Dog

Harrelson’s role in this astute political satire may be little more than a cameo, but it’s an important one given his character – the criminally insane army convict Sgt William Schumann – plays an integral part in an elaborate scheme concocted by a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to deflect attention from a US presidential sex scandal. At the end of the day it’s difficult to imagine any other person pulling this mischievous performance off so effectively.

9. No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

Woody Harrelson - No Country For Old Men

If anyone should be capable of taking out the evil and resilient assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardham) it’s the cool-as-a-cucumber Carson Wells (Harrelson), another hired gun who comes across him while on the same drug money retrieval mission in southern Texas. Unfortunately for Wells, there’s no honour amongst contract killers in Chigurh’s playbook. A brief, low key, and quietly menacing appearance.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017)

Woody Harrelson - Three Billboards

As police chief of the titular town, Harrelson is good in the screen time he manages to get before his terminally ill character tops himself around the half way mark. Thinking about it, he probably could have easily also played the rather less disciplined, heavy drinking, socially maladjusted policeman Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – a role that was rewarded with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2017.

7. The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)

The Messenger, Film Oren Moverman, Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson

Although Harrelson delivers a solid performance as Captain Tony Stone of the US military’s casualty notification unit, his character ultimately plays second fiddle to Ben Foster’s Will Montgomery, an injured Iraq invasion veteran who finds himself under Stone’s command as he awaits his discharge papers. The film is essentially split into two parts – with the first being a sometimes harrowing and heartfelt account of human grief, and the second a less satisfying, but nevertheless interesting, buddy-buddy road movie.

6. Kingpin (Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 1996)

Woody Harrelson - Kingpin

Lightweight, vulgar and corny perhaps, but Harrelson is hilarious in this profane comedy about a down and out alcoholic travelling salesman who tries to revive his thwarted bowling career through an awkward Amish protégé (Randy Quaid). While the actor got his first break in a television sitcom (Cheers), suggesting he has a dab hand when it comes to being funny, this movie’s sense of humour is in another ballpark.

5. Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)

Woody Harrelson - Rampart

The world starts caving in for corrupt LAPD cop Dave Brown (Harrelson) after he oversteps the mark at work a few too many times. His peculiar domestic arrangement is also collapsing, and it’s only when his daughter Helen (Brie Larson) spells it out for him (she calls her father a dinosaur – a classic racist, bigot, sexist, womanising, chauvinistic, homophobic misanthrope) that he becomes a little contrite and confesses to the authorities about a past crime, albeit while trying to negotiate his way out of a murder beef. In some ways this self-assured performance of a train wreck protagonist is similar to that of Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant insofar as both play crooked cops who dominate every scene they are in.

4. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009)

Woody Harrelson - Zombieland

If Harrelson has ever lived up to the above-mentioned praise bestowed upon him by James Ellroy, it’s in this movie.

3. The People vs Larry Flynt (Milos Forman, 1996)

Woody Harrelson - The People Versus Larry Flynt

One of the big moral dilemmas posed by this biopic is the fact it portrays pornographer Larry Flynt (Harrelson) – a man whose work well and truly ventures into brutally sexist and misogynistic territory – as a champion of free speech. All things considered it ended up being a perfect vehicle for the actor, garnering him his first Oscar nomination (for Best Actor).

2. LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016)

Woody Harrelson - LBJ

It’s arguable that Harrelson’s sympathetic (and some would argue sanitised) portrayal of US President Lyndon Johnson is comparable to Gary Oldman’s take on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour the following year. Unlike Oldman, though, he didn’t get an Oscar for his efforts – in fact he wasn’t even nominated for one, which is a crying shame.

1. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

Woody Harrelson - Natural Born Killers

Back in October 1994, while promoting the then just-released Natural Born Killers (NBK), Harrelson (who plays mass murderer Mickey Knox) told Premiere’s Corie Brown that he was “very much in the head space of the character”, adding: “I went into my own shadow, my own rage. All of this stuff was opened up that I’d been repressing.” Brown then noted that the actor’s father Charles was a convicted murderer (with one of his victims being US District Judge John H Wood Jnr in 1979). Later in the article, NBK director and co-writer Oliver Stone indicated he could feel Harrelson’s “genetic violence”, saying: “I looked in his eyes the moment I met him and knew this was a man who has violence in him, and he was starting to be in touch with that.”

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are your top 10 Woody Harrelson films?

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Mark Andrew Reply

    Woody Harrelson is superb in Out of the Furnace.

  2. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    I’ve always liked him. He’s pretty good in those small roles he does – more recently he stood out in the Hunger Games movies but previously he stole the odd scene in Doc Hollywood and as Galaxia in Anger Management.

    Stand outs for me would be the Moverman films – Rampart and The Messenger… the definition of powerhouse. (That said, Ben Foster was sensational in The Messenger).

  3. Dan
    Dan Reply

    A favourite of mine ever since his early work as far back as the enjoyable high school football comedy Wildcats with the delightful Goldie Hawn and White Men Can’t Jump. Of those that aren’t listed, I like EdTv, the first Now You See Me, and some of The Hunger Games film, but I’m not sure they would break into this top 10.

    Can’t argue with your inclusions: like Callum I’ve admired Oren Moverman’s films and I’d find it difficult to move NBK off the top spot.

  4. Avatar
    Roger Keen Reply

    Definitely agree with NBK at one but would move The People Versus Larry Flynt ahead of the prosthetics of LBJ. I thought he was brilliant in Rampart but do favour the more understated performance in The Messenger. He’s impressed me on TV too. True Detective is a must-see.

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    Jacob Reply

    He’s in the underseen Bunraku.

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    CineGirl Reply

    An actor who’s getting better. I enjoy his early stuff but prefer the films and TV work of the last 10 years. Like a few others, Rampart and The Messenger are two of my favourites along with LBJ, Three Billboards, Out of the Furnace, and the recently released The Highwaymen.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Great to see Harrelson in a top ten. He really is versatile and can bounce around from comedy to drama to horror to romance. I’d put his work in White Men Can’t Jump in here as well…but can’t argue with the list.

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    ArchE Reply

    Wag The Dog is a great addition here. I forget about that one sometimes. Nb. too much J Daniels, I guess.

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    Dean Reply

    Spot on number one. Natural Born Killers is an incredible film and Harrelson’s stellar in it (as is his co-star). I prefer him in roles that have humour, be that subtle within the drama or overt comedy. Some of his more downbeat work doesn’t sit as well with me and didn’t like Now You See Me which was some middle ground that was neither dramatic nor funny.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    Glad to see NBKat number 1. Outstanding & phenomenal performance!

    Nice to see Zombielandmaje the list.

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    Grace Pickford Reply

    I always thought he was a bit one-note in his early career; playing the fool, that sort of thing. Even in Natural Born Killers which I’ve never liked. But I think True Detective changed my mind and I’ve since seen Three Billboards and Rampart which I thought were excellent. I haven’t seen LBJ but I’ll definitely check it out now.

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    AJ Reply

    I’d forgotten just how diverse his career is. Very versatile. A good actor.

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    andrew Reply

    Not a single Harrelson/Snipes collaboration on this list. Surely at least one of their films should’ve made the cut?

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    Rachel Reply

    Definitely NBK at number one. It was a fitting role for him on a personal and professional level.

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