There are some celebrities who so seem to represent American masculinity — well, straight, white American masculinity, anyway — that they feel carved out of granite and permanently decked out in blue jeans. Bruce Springsteen is one of those guys, and so is Kevin Costner, who for decades has exuded a slightly square persona. He’s the regular Joe. He’s the dude you wouldn’t mind having a beer with. And, for a short time, he was the biggest thing in Hollywood.
Costner’s cinematic peak was relatively short — the late 1980s to the early 1990s — but he managed to amass two Academy Awards and a string of popular hits during that time period. You know what happened after that: Waterworld severely dented his standing, and then The Postman made him a punch line. All he’s done since then is keep working, switching between character-actor roles and starring vehicles that were often … well, let’s be generous and call them “interesting.” He would never again capture the Zeitgeist — never again captivate audiences the way Bull Durham or Field of Dreams did — but we feel fairly confident that most moviegoers still have a fairly favorable viewpoint of the actor-director. It’s hard to dislike Kevin Costner. He seems like a good fella.
In recent years, his greatest success has been with Yellowstone, his Paramount series that caters to the older demographic who has been supporting him since the Dances With Wolves years — the same folks who probably checked out his 2019 Netflix film The Highwaymen. Your dad probably enjoys Kevin Costner, and maybe it’s a thing you share with your old man. In his prime, he articulated a rugged vulnerability that could make men weepy about his films. Decency, idealism, common sense, a can-do spirit: Costner embodied these qualities with a no-big-deal air. He would have been a killer candidate had he ever considered running for public office.
Costner has a new film out, Let Him Go, so we’ve taken this opportunity to rank 42 of his performances. The career milestones end up as high on the list as you’d imagine, but it turns out that there are more gems than you might remember. He’s so understated that he runs the risk of being underrated.
42. Dragonfly (2002)
Costner’s corn-poke earnestness is one of his strongest attributes as an actor, but when it does him wrong, it really does him wrong. Here, he’s Joe, a doctor whose wife dies in a bus accident in Venezuela but keeps appearing to him in his grief, sometimes in the guise of a dragonfly and sometimes through creepy little children. Joe has to find his wife’s spirit, through the dragonflies we think, but mostly it’s an excuse for Costner to go full saccharine and for director Tom Shadyac to indulge every last jerked tear. Costner, for all his white-guy pseudo-soulfulness, doesn’t play grief well. He mostly just seems sleepy.
41. 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001)
It remains absolutely baffling that this movie — which features criminals disguised as Elvis impersonators, and, somehow, Jon Lovitz, Ice-T, and Paul Anka in the same film — isn’t funny. It’s not even supposed to be funny! It’s just a weirdly overly violent heist film featuring an unlikable, self-involved Costner (who looks bloated and tired) and a not-getting-out-of-bed-before-noon-for-this Kurt Russell running around and posing in the desert. This was when Costner was still reeling from The Postman, and it almost feels like a movie he made to be actively stupid and escapist. 3000 Miles to Graceland ended up being a massive flop and, arguably, a bigger career stain than The Postman was. That movie (and we’ll get to that soon) is bad, but it at least has some dumb ambition. It’s still not clear what this was ever supposed to be.
40. The Guardian (2006)
Every dangerous profession gets its own movie. (Our favorite of this genre is Life on the Line, a movie in which John Travolta plays a guy who climbs telephone poles.) Here it’s the Coast Guard, with Costner saddled with the thankless role as the “senior chief survival aviation technician” who has to train young, cocky Coast Guard wannabe … Ashton Kutcher. The comparison the movie is clearly trying to make — that Kutcher is a young version of Costner — does Costner no favors, and all told, he looks a little irritated by it: Even at his worst, he’s better than “Ashton Kutcher mentor,” and he knows it.
39. The Postman (1997)
All right, first off, a movie that features Tom Petty, living in a dystopian near future, playing a character who is clearly meant to be Tom Petty several years after “the collapse of society” can’t necessarily be all bad.
The Postman is, however, mostly bad. It’s a shame, too, because the message of the novel it’s based on is one we can all appreciate today: When society breaks down, there will be simple, pure value in a man who delivers the mail, who reminds us of a sense of community. Unfortunately, Costner, who directed, puffs it up and turns the self-worship up to an impossible-to-sit-through level (this movie is 177 minutes long!), and ends it with the infamous statue of himself — the perfect metaphor for a movie star who may have gone off the deep end. Costner never was the same after this notorious flop, but all told, it may have been good for him. He stopped playing these sort of empty “heroic” roles and started to lean toward the laconic character-actor parts that fit him well as he got older. But seriously: This is as difficult a sit as a movie gets.
38. The New Daughter (2009)
You know what’s a job we don’t believe Kevin Costner is capable of adequately playing? A writer. He can play smart characters, but he’s not convincing as a thoughtful, tortured, brooding type: He’s a man of action and few words — the opposite of a writer, really. Here, he’s a divorced, depressed author who moves into a southern home with his young son and teenage daughter and discovers that it might be haunted, or located on an old burial ground, or both. The New Daughter has an interesting, sullen mood and looks fantastic, but that just further accentuates how out of place Costner seems. You keep expecting him to put down that novel he’s supposedly working on and go play some golf.
37. 3 Days to Kill (2014)
Fellas, you know how it is: You’re a kick-ass government agent, which means you can’t find quality time with your family. But then, of all the luck, you get a terminal cancer diagnosis, so you think maybe it’s the universe telling you that you should finally bond with your distant kid. Except, holy cow, you then learn from a shady American operative that there’s an experimental serum that can save you — but first you have to do one last mission. Part father-daughter drama, part sub-Taken shoot-‘em-up, 3 Days to Kill tried to pivot Costner from lovable Everyman to middle-aged action figure, and the results were not very successful. Maybe if the material were better — maybe if the supernaturally awful McG weren’t directing — then this might have been a fun, amoral little thriller. But Costner seems completely uncomfortable in the role. He just doesn’t have that killer instinct.
36. Draft Day (2014)
Without question the worst sports movie Costner has ever made, Draft Day is an official NFL production — Roger Goodell even makes a cameo, and the movie is allowed to use real teams and logos as long as they do nothing to tarnish the shield — and it is as vanilla and dopey and hackneyed as that would imply. Costner isn’t allowed to be charming or raffish or to have any shading at all: He is just an old, white, “safe” NFL executive’s dream, a nothing man in a nondescript suit acting “professional.” This is a sports movie for people who don’t really like sports.
35. Mr. Brooks (2007)
Eventually, every nice-guy actor has to do his “dark serial killer” departure. Mr. Brooks was Costner’s: He plays Earl, a successful businessman who has a demented alter ego, Marshall (William Hurt), that makes him kill people. And, yes, it is a kick to watch Costner show a more menacing side, but those pleasures are pretty fleeting. Plus, the story isn’t strong enough, and the character’s psychology isn’t interesting enough — Earl doesn’t enjoy killing, but he’s addicted — so the movie ends up feeling like an interesting exercise more than a fascinating plunge into a truly warped mind. He’d have more luck with this kind of thing about a decade later with Criminal (which we’ll get to shortly).
34. Rumor Has It (2005)
It’s true: There was once a comedy that starred Jennifer Aniston, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Ruffalo, Richard Jenkins, and Kevin Costner. Don’t feel bad if that doesn’t ring a bell: Rumor Has It was a notorious misfire, the kind that seems to evaporate from the public consciousness as soon as it hits theaters. The premise is that Aniston (who’s engaged to Ruffalo but having second thoughts) starts to suspect that her grandmother (MacLaine) might have been the inspiration for Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. But if that’s true, then who was the Benjamin Braddock figure? Enter Costner, who plays a well-to-do family friend whom Aniston is attracted to. Rumor Has It was plagued with behind-the-scenes drama — screenwriter Ted Griffin was fired as director, replaced by Rob Reiner, who recast several of the roles — and all of that internal discord proved more interesting than the film, which finds Costner and Aniston struggling to have any chemistry. Plus, Costner’s character — a womanizer who has a habit of bedding members of Aniston’s family — is just never believable. It’s to his benefit that most people have forgotten this one.
33. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
It is incredibly difficult to keep all of the Jack Ryans straight, but know that this is the one that starred Chris Pine. (And was directed by Kenneth Branagh.) The movie itself is overwhelmingly standard — just that title alone makes one drowsy — and the only actor showing any real energy here is Pine, who would never end up playing the role again anyway. That lethargy filters down to Costner, who is Jack Ryan’s mentor and does a lot of mentoring — much, much mentoring — and then dutifully gets out of the way.
32. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
This summer blockbuster came out shortly after Costner’s Oscar wins for Dances With Wolves — seriously, the man was huge at this point — so even a mediocre Robin Hood retelling wasn’t going to stop him from putting asses in seats. Prince of Thieves is a pretty ungainly beast (lumbering action, dumb dialogue), but it also doesn’t work because Costner quite simply isn’t convincing as Robin Hood. To ask the most American of movie stars to play this iconic English figure was foolhardy, and his down-to-earth authenticity gets him nowhere in the role. It’s the sort of event movie in which the villain is ten times more interesting than the good guy, so let us now spare a thought for the late, great Alan Rickman, who at least has a little fun as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
31. For Love of the Game (1999)
This Sam Raimi misfire — it is absolutely bizarre that Sam Raimi directed this movie, by the way; it is perhaps the least Sam Raimi movie we have ever seen — is a staid, would-be throwback about an aging pitcher (Costner, naturally) who, late in his career, is in the process of throwing a perfect game while looking back on the mistakes he made in his life. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, and it isn’t, really, but For Love of the Game is so mawkish and stilted that there isn’t a single moment off the field that feels real … which makes you trust the on-field stuff even less. Raimi does get credit, however, for casting John C. Reilly as a catcher. If John C. Reilly were a baseball player, he would absolutely be a catcher.
30. The War (1994)
Though this was made during the peak of Costner’s stardom, this is more of a supporting role for Costner as a returning Vietnam vet who struggles with his memories of the war while trying to hold down a job and support his family. The story is told from the perspective of his kids, specifically his son Stu (Elijah Wood, who is wonderful), and when it focuses on those kids and their father’s struggles, it works. Unfortunately, the movie is too symbolism-heavy to just leave it at that, and ultimately Costner’s game performance can’t help but go down with the ship.
29. Criminal (2016)
Costner can obviously be charming, but every once in a while, he finds the right role where he just shuts it off entirely, going dead-eyed and empty. It’s not scary, necessarily, but it is jarring to watch an actor like him go blank and hulking. That’s the best part of this otherwise hacky thriller about a serial killer/terrorist having his memories and skills downloaded into the mind of a man with brain damage (Costner) who tries to destroy the world (or something) while Ryan Reynolds (who’s married to a pre–Wonder Woman Gal Gadot) tries to chase him down. The movie is junk, but there might be a great Costner aging-sociopath role out there somewhere.
28. Message in a Bottle (1999)
It was probably inevitable that Costner would end up with at least one Nicholas Sparks adaptation on his résumé: The loyal audiences for the actor and those books would certainly seem to have plenty of crossover. Message in a Bottle is the dopey, sugar-sweet tearjerker you’d imagine, and Costner is appropriately hazy-eyed and winsome as the widower who just needs to give love (in the form of Robin Wright Penn) another chance. The problem is that Costner is maybe a tad old to be playing this sort of guy at this stage of his career, though he has warmth and even some fun playing off Paul Newman as his father.
27. Waterworld (1995)
We’ve come to the movie that ruined Kevin Costner’s career. The most expensive film of its era. The flop that was dubbed Fishtar. But when considering Waterworld, two seemingly contradictory opinions can both be true: This infamous debacle is better than its reputation suggests and it’s still not any good. Costner hooked back up with director Kevin Reynolds, with whom he’d made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and they conspired to work in a genre (and with a main character) that was even further out of the star’s comfort zone. Could someone else have made “the Mariner” a fascinating anti-hero? Oh, possibly: Lord knows there’s a Mel Gibson/Mad Max–y quality to this postapocalyptic survivor. But it’s hard for Costner’s sincerity to ground a scenario that’s this ludicrous and overwrought. The best you can say about Waterworld is that it’s not that terrible. The worst you can say about Costner is that he had an even bigger flop on the horizon with The Postman.
26. The Company Men (2010)
This John Wells drama concerning some downsized white-collar employees isn’t particularly good or noteworthy, but it made some sense to cast Costner as Jack, the working-class regular dude who gives his laid-off, executive-class brother-in-law Ben Affleck a job. The whole point of the character is to teach Affleck the importance of honest labor, and Costner leans into the real-American simplicity of the role. Still, The Company Men came out during a period when it was far better to see the actor in supporting roles than as the star — invariably, the smaller part was always more interesting.
25. Revenge (1990)
Made right before Costner got really big and became maybe a little bit too America’s Actor to get his hands dirty with something like this, this adaptation of a Jim Harrison novella stars Costner as a Navy vet who ends up having an affair with the wife (Madeleine Stowe) of a Mexican crime lord (Anthony Quinn!). Revenge is way, way over-the-top, with big, huge plot twists that are played by director Tony Scott like he’s making the sudsiest soap opera ever. It’s still pretty fun, if we’re being honest, and it’s oddly enjoyable watching Costner, in his prime, in something so profoundly silly and overwrought.
24. Black or White (2014)
Costner gives his all to this well-intentioned but predictably clunky attempt at exploring America’s racial divide. He’s an alcoholic Los Angeles lawyer grieving over the death of his wife when he’s suddenly ensnared in a custody battle over his beloved granddaughter with the girl’s paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer). Reuniting with Upside of Anger filmmaker Mike Binder, Costner is superb at playing a complicated, flawed man who swears he’s not racist — yet certain biases appear as he fights to gain custody of this little girl who represents the last connection to his dead wife. Judged in a vacuum, the performance is moderately heartfelt and moving. But in a movie that ends up being quite cringey, those honorable intentions don’t add up to much.
23. The Highwaymen (2019)
This Netflix film feels very much algorithmically selected to give your dad something to do at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. Costner teams with Woody Harrelson as FBI agents tasked with taking down the notorious criminals Bonnie and Clyde. The conceit of The Highwaymen is to show the less glamorous side of the infamous criminals, as two square-jawed heroes set out to stop the couple from killing and robbing. Costner is the ideal star for this sort of Regular Noble Joe role, but the whole project seems doomed from inception: The thing about making a movie about the two more-boring-than-Bonnie-and-Clyde characters chasing down Bonnie and Clyde is that they are more boring than Bonnie and Clyde. You spend the whole movie wondering what the offscreen couple on the lam is up to.
22. McFarland, USA (2015)
This Niki Caro inspirational sports drama finds Costner plugging into a familiar mode — he’s a flailing football coach whose last chance involves guiding a Latino cross-country team — and while McFarland, USA is perfectly respectable, it’s very formulaic. The film is based on a true story, but Costner’s Jim White doesn’t seem that different from every other movie coach you’ve ever met. Costner is a total pro — he delivers the speeches sincerely, and he doesn’t push too hard to get the audience cheering — but this paean to racial tolerance feels pretty toothless.
21. Man of Steel (2013)
Much has been written about the awfulness of Zack Snyder’s DC Universe films — much of it by us, to be honest — but Costner is one of the actors who escape unscathed. (Unlike Jesse Eisenberg … and Ben Affleck … and Holly Hunter … and Michael Shannon … and, well, just about everybody.) Costner plays Pa Kent, Superman’s adoptive dad and the one real moral force for good in the Snyder universe. This ultimately won’t matter — Superman just snaps Zod’s neck anyway — but Costner’s send-off in Man of Steel is maybe the only emotional moment in any of the Snyder movies, the only one that doesn’t make you want to drive into a wall.
20. American Flyers (1985)
Widely considered a Breaking Away knockoff at the time, this story about a family of bicycle racers is actually a little sweeter and sadder than it is given credit for. Costner, just before he became famous, plays Marcus, the estranged older brother of a family who returns to care for his brother before suffering an aneurysm and needing to take care of himself. American Flyers is Costner’s first sports film, but while he’s the ostensible star, it’s more a story about family than it is competition. Costner’s star presence and fundamental decency are palpable. And look at that mustache!
19. Hidden Figures (2016)
This inspirational real-life drama about three Black women who bucked the discrimination of their era to be integral to America’s space program during the 1960s predictably features the One Noble White Character Who Helps, which is the sort of thing you cast Costner for. He’s perfectly fine as Al Harrison, the head of the Space Task Group, but you can safely assume that Al will stand up for equality and metaphorically (and also literally) knock down the everyday vestiges of racism around him. The audience cheers at the right moments, and Costner has the appropriate indignant fervor. But you sorta wish films like Hidden Figures didn’t need these hackneyed crowd-pleasing digressions.
18. Thirteen Days (2000)
After a string of disappointments, Thirteen Days felt like a modest step in the right direction, with Costner playing Kenneth O’Donnell, the chief of staff to President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds. This stripped-down Roger Donaldson thriller lets Costner convey calm, square-jawed stability — the movie’s seen from his perspective, not Kennedy’s — and he does a good job of humanizing a tense political drama, reminding us how just a small group of men held the fate of the planet in their hands. Thirteen Days isn’t especially grandiose — if it came out now, it’d be a limited series on Showtime — but it gives Costner the opportunity to do his solid-regular-guy routine at a time when he needed a comeback.
17. Swing Vote (2008)
Built around a ludicrous high-concept premise — a technical error caused a man (Costner) in New Mexico to not have his vote count, and it turns out that his vote is the one that will decide who becomes president — Swing Vote is not particularly satirical or smart or biting … but we gotta say, this version of Costner is pretty darn likable. His Bud is exactly the sort of dude named “Bud”: a good-time Charlie who has never thought about politics in his life and just wants to be left alone. The movie feels awfully irresponsible 12 years later — it turns out that there is a huge difference between the two parties, who knew! — but Costner finds the right low-key, chilled-out vibe. It also sort of feels closest to how he might be in real life: not particularly deep or learned, but essentially, at his core, a decent chap.
16. Wyatt Earp (1994)
This Lawrence Kasdan biopic ended up being known as the other Earp/Doc Holliday story, but at the time, this was the one you thought would be the big deal. It had Costner, after all, and a top-shelf cast, with Dennis Quaid as Doc, as well as Gene Hackman, Bill Pullman, and Isabella Rossellini. But Wyatt Earp didn’t resonate the way that Tombstone, which Costner was originally connected to, did, largely because it’s longer and more self-serious. It’s still pretty good though, and Costner gives a quiet, measured, confident performance. (He also has a splendid beard.) It doesn’t have the pop-culture crackle of Tombstone, but 25-plus years later, we’d still argue it has more depth.
15. The Bodyguard (1992)
He doesn’t want to work for some shallow pop star. She thinks he’s kind of a grump. It’s a formula that couldn’t fail: The romantic thriller The Bodyguard was one of 1992’s biggest hits and continued Costner’s streak of successful star vehicles. Critics savaged it at the time, but while Whitney Houston’s smash cover of “I Will Always Love You” remains forever memorable, in retrospect The Bodyguard is mostly just pretty corny — hardly a catastrophe. And the truth is, Costner and Houston have a really nice chemistry once their characters drop their initial animosity. Houston’s tragic passing has softened people’s assessment of The Bodyguard, and although this is hardly great work, Costner’s aw-shucks sensitivity is nicely utilized in this so-so love story.
14. Molly’s Game (2017)
After Man of Steel showed he was a natural for wise-father roles, Costner signed up for Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, in which he plays the complicated dad to Jessica Chastain’s brilliant underground-poker impresario. In Molly’s Game, he has to deliver the big third-act moment and nails his very Sorkin-y “this is what the whole film means” soliloquy, succeeding in sounding like a human being rather than one of the writer-director’s walk-and-talk quip machines. It’s a small role, but Costner kills it, bringing gray-haired authority as a professional therapist who’s gonna solve his daughter’s issues — whether she wants him to or not.
13. The Upside of Anger (2005)
Of all of the athletes Costner has played, the one you probably forgot is Denny, a former ballplayer who falls for Terry (Joan Allen), an angry, drunken mother who has never forgiven her husband for vanishing on her and their children, presumably to be with his mistress overseas. The Upside of Anger is the story of two alcoholics who work through their demons and disappointments by being in a relationship together. That pairing suggests disaster, and Costner is excellent as a guy who’s gone to seed but sees something in Terry that maybe she doesn’t even see in herself. There’s something far less romantic about this version of the actor’s athlete portrayals: Denny’s basically a good guy, but he’s been beaten down by life. Costner is wonderfully vulnerable in the role.
12. Fandango (1985)
The partnership between Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds officially started with this coming-of-age comedy, but they’d actually been previously acquainted with one another. (“I met Kevin when I was in film school,” Reynolds said later. “He came in and auditioned for my student film.” Fun fact: Costner did not get the part.) Fandango concerns a group of college buddies in the early 1970s hitting the open road. The reason? Mostly because they don’t want to think about being drafted or having to become adults. Even playing a college student, there’s something earnest and mature about Costner — he has a sober bearing that makes him seem so much more grounded than his age would suggest. Fandango was an important breakthrough for Costner, showing that he could carry a film, but he’d soon find more significant roles to play.
11. Let Him Go (2020)
The story is fairly standard — a retired lawman (Costner) must save his grandson from a family of abusive criminals — and in lesser hands, it might have turned into Costner’s version of a late-career Liam Neeson revenge flick. But it’s quieter and sadder than that, and Costner gives a nearly silent, deeply sad performance as a no-nonsense man who keeps trying to do the right thing and finds himself outmatched at every turn. This is the sort of taciturn, iconic performance that Clint Eastwood did late in his career, to great effect. Costner looks poised to inherit that mantle: Let Him Go is better than you assume it will be.
10. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Pauline Kael loathed this Best Picture winner, famously observing, “Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.” It has been popular for years — especially because Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas for Best Picture — to mock this well-meaning paean to Native Americans as just another Oscar-bait-y piece of white-savior sanctimony. And, yes, it certainly fits the description. But this imperfect-yet-still-emotional drama features a very good Costner performance as Dunbar, a disillusioned Civil War soldier who finds himself reborn once he meets members of the Sioux tribe. Like the film itself, Costner is sometimes painfully earnest, but earnestness has been his stock-in-trade for a good long while, and he brings a certain nobility that the role requires. Dances With Wolves isn’t better than Goodfellas — that’s a given. But it’s a solid piece of sentimental advocacy.
9. No Way Out (1987)
Of the movies that made Costner a star, No Way Out is the one that is perhaps the most forgotten today — unfairly so. It’s a crackerjack, page-turner thriller about a Navy lieutenant (Costner) whose lover (Sean Young) is murdered by the secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) and all the diplomatic derring-do that results. The movie is completely ridiculous — and there’s a plotline about a gay character that has not aged well — but it is smashingly addictive, the sort of political palace-intrigue potboiler that absolutely does not exist in Hollywood anymore. And Costner is the ideal leading man: handsome, a little mysterious, impossible not to cheer for, even against your better judgment. There really should be more movies like this.
8. The Untouchables (1987)
Robert De Niro and Sean Connery had the flashier roles. But there was something wonderfully ironic that Costner’s uptight, do-gooding Eliot Ness was the man who finally brought down the mighty Al Capone (De Niro), a gangster so larger than life that it seemed like he was above the law. The Untouchables was the beginning of a string of hits for Costner, and you can very much see the dutiful character actor in this performance: It’s delivered by a focused guy who doesn’t yet know he’s going to be a star. But that understated determination works beautifully alongside Connery’s wonderfully brash cop Jimmy Malone, who gives the kid a pep talk about “the Chicago way” that will inspire him to toughen up in his pursuit of Capone. After The Untouchables, Costner never disappeared into a big role again in quite the same way.
7. Tin Cup (1996)
It seemed like a no-brainer that filmmaker Ron Shelton would eventually reunite with Costner after their successful partnership on Bull Durham. But when the director approached the actor about Tin Cup, Costner initially wasn’t interested. “I’d just done Waterworld and had gone through a divorce, and my heart was pretty much on the ground,” Costner recalled. “But I knew working with Ron again would be the best therapy because he basically hands you something you can’t fail with.” Roy isn’t as indelible a character as Crash Davis — likewise, Tin Cup isn’t as memorable as Bull Durham — but playing a stubborn has-been who used to be a promising golfer allowed Costner to flex his ordinary-man muscles. He makes Roy lovable and a little bit tragic, and Costner has an easygoing chemistry with Rene Russo, who’s superb as his reluctant romantic interest. Playing Roy might have been a predictable move, but Costner needed something he could hit out of the park — to mix our sports metaphors — and he does so here.
6. Open Range (2003)
This is the last film Costner directed, and … it’s pretty clearly the best one. Open Range is an oddly gentle Western about a cowboy named Boss (a fantastic Robert Duvall; this might be his last great performance) and his farmhand (Costner), a former soldier who is trying to turn away from his old violence but must team with Boss to take down an evil rancher (Michael Gambon). This is one of the darkest characters Costner has ever played, a good man but a cold-blooded killer when he has to be. The film is confident, assured, and understated in a way that neither of the other two Costner-directed movies were, and Costner is generous to his co-stars in a way he hasn’t always been. Open Range is not well remembered, but that deserves to change — and it has a barn burner of a gunfight as a closer.
5. Silverado (1985)
This was the movie where Scott Glenn — who had just played Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff, for crying out loud — spent the entire shoot calling Costner “movie star.” “There is real magic going on with that performance,” Glenn said. He’s not kidding. This was the first time American audiences really fell for the then-30-year-old actor, playing Jake, one of the four cowboys who battle an evil sheriff and save the sort of small town that’s always needing saving in Westerns. The joy of Lawrence Kasdan’s revisionist Western is that it isn’t revisionist at all: It just feels like an old Western and thrives because of the sincerity of its approach. And Costner is so relaxed, so natural, that it really does feel like a movie star being born right in front of your eyes. In a film with an absolutely ridiculous cast — Glenn, Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt, John Cleese, Jeff Goldblum, Rosanna Arquette, and Richard Jenkins — it’s Costner who steals the show.
4. Field of Dreams (1989)
If things had worked out differently, Robin Williams would have played Ray, the ordinary Iowa farmer who becomes convinced that he’s supposed to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield. (Costner once asked director Phil Alden Robinson why he didn’t go with Williams. According to Costner, Robinson replied, “I think that Robin could hear voices in the corn, and I needed a guy that you don’t believe is going to hear a voice in a cornfield.”) Field of Dreams is beloved for lots of reasons, but audiences’ intense connection to Costner is central to its appeal. As the good-hearted, commonsense family man who has to let go of his anger toward his late dad, Costner embodies the prodigal-son spirit of so many American men who reject their father only to reconcile with him years later. In that same interview, Costner called the film “our generation’s It’s a Wonderful Life,” which makes him the Jimmy Stewart figure: decent, honorable, emotional. It is hard to argue with that analogy.
3. A Perfect World (1993)
It checks out that Costner would make a film with Clint Eastwood: He clearly sees himself, or at least did at one point, as Eastwood’s logical successor. That comparison crumbles under scrutiny — Eastwood would never make 3000 Miles to Graceland — but you can understand what Costner’s going for: the sort of laconic, always-underplaying icon movie star that doesn’t show you any more than he has to. The only time the two teamed up was for this outstanding drama about a convict on the lam named Butch (Costner) who swipes a young boy as a hostage and ends up bonding with him while being chased by a persistent Texas Ranger (Eastwood) who has a history with Butch. A Perfect World is Eastwood at his best as a director, with a light touch but clear focus, and he gets a bravura performance from Costner as a bad man who hasn’t given up on the world yet, even if it has maybe given up on him. At the time, this was considered a sort of Batman/Superman team-up, with one of the biggest stars ever (Eastwood) co-starring with Costner, the top star of his day. But now A Perfect World is mostly forgotten, and wrongly: It’s a highlight in both of their careers.
2. JFK (1991)
“We needed to go and we had to be sharp all the way through,” Costner said in 2016 of his experience making Oliver Stone’s sweatily intense conspiracy-theory thriller, a combination of whodunit and courtroom drama. “Every day was going to be a workload. There was nothing casual about that movie.” You feel that urgency in every frame of JFK, as well as in Costner’s performance as Jim Garrison, the DA committed to finding out who really killed John F. Kennedy. Every line of dialogue, every hyperactive edit of this hallucinatory film feels like it’s in italics, highlighted, triple underlined, which is why Costner’s cool, calm, impassioned tone is so crucial to JFK’s success. Garrison may have been reckless in his quest, but the actor’s fiery, patriotic gusto gives the movie a moral imperative that’s bracing. It’s an impetuous, hair-on-fire film anchored by Costner’s belief that these are questions worth asking of a government that’s supposed to be serving the people. He makes Jim Garrison a modern Don Quixote, and the tilting at windmills is inspiring.
1. Bull Durham (1989)
Costner only got this part because he was good at baseball; director Ron Shelton saw him hit two homers in a pseudo-audition and knew he had to have him. (The studio wanted … Anthony Michael Hall!) But while this is the preeminent Costner movie — every character in every sports movie he was in after this one has a little Crash Davis in him — it’s not his baseball-playing skill that makes this work. Costner’s confidence and intelligence (he’s smarter than everyone in the room other than Susan Sarandon’s Annie) smolder here, and he channels all sorts of legendary leading men, from William Holden to Paul Newman to even a bit of Humphrey Bogart. His star power is off the charts, and between him and Sarandon (who has also probably never been better), they make baseball look sexier than baseball has ever, ever been. Costner is a good actor, but at his core, he is a throwback to a different age of movie star. And he’s never been more of a movie star than he was right here.