Monday, December 11, 2017

The Ballad of Lefty Brown: The Sidekick Rides for Vengeance

Old Lefty Brown’s riding mates have gone on to great things. One is now the governor of Montana and another is a U.S. Marshall. Perhaps most impressively, his partner Edward Johnson is the great state’s senator-elect. Brown ought to sign up with a lobbying firm and peddle access, but that is a city-slicker thing to do. He’s an open range cowboy all the way. It becomes a moot point anyway when Johnson is murdered by outlaws. Brown was always the comic relief, but like Sam Spade, he understands a man has to do something when their partner gets killed. Not a lot of people ever took the sixty-five-year-old bunkhouse cowpoke seriously, but he rides for vengeance anyway in Jared Moshe’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Johnson was a respected rancher, lawman, an opponent of railroad interests. As we see in the opening scenes, he still dispensed justice frontier-style, with Brown right beside him. His wife Laura hoped their upcoming move to Washington would finally shake loose old Lefty, but Johnson was dead set on leaving him in charge of the ranch. Regrettably, that all changes when the two crusty partners walk into an ambush.

Poor, misunderestimated Brown is left alive to face the contempt of Johnson’s widow and ranch hands. Determined to settle the score, Brown sets off alone. Of course, nobody thinks he can do much of anything, so Gov. Jimmy Bierce dispatches Marshall Tom Harrah to retrieve him when they arrive for the funeral. However, Harrah finds his old riding mate is hot on the trail, so he temporarily joins the pursuit instead. Unfortunately, Brown will eventually find he has been denounced as an accomplice back at the ranch, just when he is most in need of help.

It is so refreshing to see a new western that respects the genre and what it represents, as is the case here. Ballad is definitely darker than your singing cowboy movies of yesteryear, but it is not exactly revisionist either. Moshe has obviously processed a whole lot of western cinema, but the films of Anthony Mann really jump out as a likely influence (which is a recommendation in itself).

He also gets an award caliber performance out of the always reliable Bill Pullman, possibly doing his best work since he was on Broadway in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? It is a tricky role playing the goofy sidekick forced to become deadly serious. In past eras, maybe a Walter Huston could have handled it, but he nails it cleanly. It is not just his partner who died, it is his way of life that is also slowly expiring, which viewers can just see in his sad, but still hawk-like eyes.

Jim Caviezel is entertainingly slimy as the governor, while Peter Fonda clearly enjoys his brief time riding tall in the saddle as the hard-nosed Johnson. However, Tommy Flanagan nearly steals the picture from Pullman, as the morally conflicted and profoundly haunted Marshall Harrah. It is a rich supporting turn, with range worthy of the frontier.

Clearly, just about everyone involved made the most of their opportunity to work a genuine western with an A-list cast, because Ballad looks just about perfect. Cinematographer David McFarland captures the sweep of the Montana plains and badlands and the design team gets all the period details right, in a Spartan kind of way, that never overshadows the grungy, archetypal drama. This is a film that people will definitely see over time, because there is a hunger out there for good westerns, like In a Valley of Violence and Slow West, but the target demo is naturally skeptical. Moshe’s film can hang with both those recent westerns, which is also saying something. Enthusiastically recommended, The Ballad of Lefty Brown opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the Village East.