Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 19, 2017 3:51 pm 
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Bill Pullman shines in a new Western

Here is a young director still loyal to the Western genre Hollywood has abandoned. The effort pays off and reminds us what a rich field has been allowed to lie fallow. His first Western feature was Dead Man's Burden (2013). In this second one, also shot on classic Kodak 35mm film, a sidekick instead of a hero takes center stage, and there's an anti-capitalist angle. But despite the revisionist approach, Moshé totally avoids winking pastiches or Tarantino-esque flourishes and plays it straight. And this works fine as far as Lefty Brown is concerned as he's played, also straight, but as a kind of loser forced to be heroic, by the great Bill Pullman. He's 63, and so is Lefty. Pullman and his character, who's never been seen at center stage of a Western, are astonishing.

When Lefty's long time boss Eddie - Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) - a rancher and gunman, is about to go to Washington with his wife (Kathy Baker) to be a U.S. Senator, a rustler shoots and kills Eddie. His wife was debating whether Lefty was qualified to run the ranch as Eddie wanted, but that question is put on hold because Lefty goes off to fine the killer, a blond young man with long hair, who he cited, and bring him to justice.

Other key players in the action are the governor, Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), a friend of Eddie's who plans to do the memorial, and a marshall,Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan), another old pal who links up with Lefty to find the killer, till his old habit of drink takes charge again.

Along the way Lefty is adopted by a rakish and adventurous boy called Jeremiah (Diego Josef), who aspires to Wild Bill status and carries around printed stories about badmen and gunmen. It turns out that Eddie is one of them, and one of Jeremiah's heros. Lefty, who has a slight limp, moves like a man who's been on a horse too long, assures Jeremiah that he is not one of the heroes in the stories. Jeremiah attempts to act bravely, but has bad luck, and Lefty saves Jeremiah, the main subplot. This action helps reinforce Lefty's essential goodness. He may be inept or for forty years with Eddie may not have shown Eddie's now widow much initiative, but, he is as fearless as he can be when it counts, and he is incapable of doing wrong.

Not so Tom Harrah, who can let the bottle sidetrack his plans, even less so the venial Jimmy Bierce, who is a snake and an agent of commercial exploitation with no care for the general run of his constituents.

All this is fine, and Moshé captures the beauty of the West through the eye of his cinematographer David McFarland so we feel the land with a texture that is at once traditional for the genre and fresh. Where things go wrong, alas is in the way, after Lefty has caught Eddie's killer, the movie doesn't quite know what to do.

A more succinct screenplay, that with so few extended gunfights might have been closer to 90 minutes than its actual 111, would have heightened the issue of the plot and the corruption behind Eddie's death and faced the three main men off against each other more dramatically - and more quickly.

There are several times when a hangman's noose goes over a main character's head, and the second time, he doesn't get off. Jeremiah comes close to expiring but is saved, not before the eager and jaunty young actor Diego Joseph lets out a series of very enthusiastic and convincing screams. Bill Pullman continually surprises and gives pleasure with his character's self-awareness. If this is'n't a masterpiece of the genre it still gives a fair degree of unexpected satisfaction in a world so lacking in cowboys, badmen, six shooters, and shotguns - the weapons of his opponents, Lefty always identifies by brand. But tighter and more forceful writing is needed.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown, 111 mins., debuted at SxSW where it won the audience award; a dozen other festivals, including Zurich and Chicago, with further nominations and awards. Metacritic rating: 61%. Limited release 15 Dec. 2017. Watched at Village East 19 Dec.


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