Principal Cast : Bill Pullman, Kathy Baker, Jim Caviezel, Joe Anderson, Tommy Flannagan, Peter Fonda, Michael Spears, Diego Josef.
Synopsis: After the death of his friend and mentor, a loyal western rancher must confront the harsh realities of frontier justice.
Good, quality Westerns have been few and far between in recent years. I could name the really good ones on the fingers of one hand: Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and Slow West are all brilliant entries into the genre, capitalising on dissecting masculinity and understanding the foundation of modern America as a nation built on violence, prejudice, honour and dirt. Comparisons to iconic films such as Unforgiven, High Noon and The Searchers always abound in reviews for modern films, and I’ll be honest, that’s not really going to change here. Jared Moshe, whose only earlier directing credit is 2012’s little-seen western entry Dead Man’s Burden, brings a sense of occasion to this effort, The Ballad Of Lefty Brown, crafting an earthy realism with his story of justice and purebred drama.
Plot Synopsis courtesy Metacritic: Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman – Independence Day) is a 63 year old sidekick. Loyal, crotchety and rarely taken seriously, he’s ridden with Western legend Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda – Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day) for his entire adult life. Now Johnson has been appointed Senator of Montana, and despite the objections of his spirited wife Laura (Kathy Baker – The Age Of Adaline), he plans to leave Lefty in charge of his ranch. But when a rustler (Joe Anderson – Horns) kills Johnson, Lefty is forced from his partner’s shadow. Devastated by guilt, he sets out on a journey that will reunite him with old friends US Marshall Tom Harrah (Tommy Flannagan – Smokin’ Aces) and Governor James Bierce (Jim Caviezel – The Passion Of The Christ) as he confronts the ugly realities of frontier justice.
Character is the defining trait of any great western, and types prototypical to the genre include the hard-bitten old-timer, the straight-up personification of moral righteousness, or the flawed, perhaps cowardly type forced to lift themselves out of their own personality. The Ballad Of Lefty Brown sees Bill Pullman play against type as an older, somewhat dimwitted pioneersman who has a good heart despite his own iniquity. Lefty, a loyal man seeking revenge for the murder of his friend, isn’t your typical leading role and Moshe has taken a big risk putting him front-and-centre of this effort. It pays off, with Pullman delivering a sweet, melancholy twilight performance as Lefty, and the film is well shouldered by the seasoned actor alongside Moshe’s exquisite visuals.
The screenplay isn’t as nuanced or complex as it seems to think it is, and the sidebar characters play fairly cliched most of the time – particularly Joe Anderson’s skanky outlaw character – but the film’s internalised sense of truth somewhat pushes past this misstep. In some manner, Lefty himself isn’t really the main character, that role falling to eloquent co-stars Jim Caviezel and Tommy Flannagan, both of whom play characters searching for the answer of a mystery the film puts forth early in the piece. Kathy Baker’s role as the widowed ranch wife is small, but Baker’s ability to create drama out of minimal material is excellent. Moshe, who write the script, offers a lot of jaw-clenched pontificating and casual violence, rounded up in the swell of Montana landscapes, and it’s easy to see how some might suggest the film leans heavily into potboiler territory rather than offering up anything new. Still, there’s plenty of solid work in Lefty Brown’s slow-burn drama, and Pullman’s arc is particularly satisfying in the end.
Because the genre has been mined so heavily throughout its history, there’s little really new or fresh in the film’s overall existence. Post-modern westerns tend to be remixes of well-trod ground, and filmmakers often struggle to do so with any real conviction, so I was pleased to find this film accomplished something akin to a second coming. It’s largely led by the film’s performances, and held together by them as well. One of the big things I enjoy about the western genre is its use of landscape within a wide aspect ratio – Sergio Leone was the master of it, and still is – and in a similar manner to 2015’s western horror film Bone Tomahawk, Moshe’s use of the both the location he uses for filming and the magnificent cinematic photography (tip of the hat to cinematographer David McFarland) is exemplary and focused on narrative. Frontier America was an isolated, lonely experience, and the human drama unfolding through the lens of western film is exposed by the vacuum and tyranny of distance.
The Ballad Of Lefty Brown will sadly miss a lot of acclaim from wider audiences thanks to a limited (non-existent) marketing campaign, and that’s a shame. It’s a good little genre entry, offering a very good Bill Pullman performance, solid supporting work from Caviezel, Flannagan and young Diego Josef (as a tenderfoot wanderer Lefty picks up on the trail), and although it does trip on some genre cliches too often for my liking to make it a great film, I can recommend it most highly.
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