Starring: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Michael Kane
Director: David Miller
Mood: If you want to push yourself to watch an arthouse movie that you could talk about with film buffs but you don’t actually like artsy movies so you need it to mostly be a perfect Western.
“I’m a loner, clear down deep to my very guts. You know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself.”
John “Jack” Burns (Kirk Douglas)
When I saw the cast of Lonely Are the Brave, I absolutely had to see it.
Kirk Douglas! Gena Rowlands! Walter Matthau! Michael Kane! Okay, it’s not the Michael Kane I expected when I first discovered it, but it’s still an impressive group. And if you don’t like this movie, you are not my people.
In Lonely Are the Brave we get this gorgeous, film noir-style cinematography, a captivating story of a cowboy at odds with modern society, a gripping manhunt through the mountains, and Kirk Douglas at his absolute finest – which is saying a lot, because that man was FINE.
- Fun Fact #1: This was actually Douglas’s favourite movie he ever made, and Michael Douglas agrees that it’s his dad’s best work.
They are both 100% correct, this is an astounding movie. Stop what you’re doing right now and go watch it… but then come back and finish my review.
Lonely Are the Brave opens on a rocky mountain clearing. A denim-clad cowboy is laid back on the ground against his saddle, smoking a cigarette, his horse chilling nearby. The black-and-white cinematography is somehow both strikingly artistic and perfectly Western.
But all of a sudden the silence is broken by a roaring noise, and three planes pass overhead, leaving thick jetstreams across the sky. The cowboy watches, his brow slightly furrowed. He finishes his tin-cup coffee, and amiably tells his horse it’s time to move on.
Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) is that displaced cowboy. He roams the country on horseback, doing odd ranch jobs where he can still find them. He’s got no identification, because he doesn’t need ID to know who he is, and no home.
Burns descends the mountain and rides across a wide river, then has to cross a busy highway at which his horse balks and rears. The rest of the movie continues on like that, with Jack almost superimposed on early ‘60s civilization. He’s on a mission to rescue his buddy, who has been jailed for helping illegal immigrants. But in order to do that, he first has to break INTO the jail.
Things don’t go as planned, and Burns finds himself the target of a manhunt. You will definitely want a box of Kleenex for the ending.
Although everyone excels in their roles, this is unquestionably a masterclass in acting from Kirk Douglas.
Burns is this cowboy who is fiercely independent and bucks societal norms, basically an endangered species living on the edge, but Douglas lends him an easygoing charm and warmth that smooth Burns’s rough edges and make him wholly, achingly human. His constant monologuing to his horse, Whiskey, and their close bond will make horse girls weak at the knees. This is a man who loves his horse so much that Douglas said in an interview that when Whiskey dies, it’s like Burns dies too.
- Fun Fact #2: In 1979 Douglas would again star opposite a horse named Whiskey, in The Villain.
I think the best part, though, is that Lonely Are the Brave has a little bit of everything in its story, so Douglas gets to flex all of his acting chops. He does a little comedy, a tease of romance, some choice barroom brawling, and lots of horseback action.
- Fun Fact #3: Douglas did all of his own stunts in this movie.
And then it’s crowned with a few minutes of harrowing drama conveyed almost entirely through closeups of Douglas’s face in the rain. You’re just trapped in his character’s pain and can’t look away. Not even joking, I am tearing up just picturing it again.
Gena Rowlands is fantastic as Jerry Bondi. She’s strong but also appropriately feminine. Every look and every line she delivers feel like they’re revealing glimpses of a much deeper character that Rowlands took the time to understand. She makes a memorable impression in just two scenes.
Walter Matthau is also great as Sheriff Morey Johnson. Even though Matthau is not the hero, and he’s not some bold, dashing guy, he makes you watch him in every scene. The way he plays Morey is deliberate, which perfectly suits the character.
Lonely Are the Brave hooks you from its first scene, in case it wasn’t obvious from how much time I spent describing it.
There is just so much to look at in each moment, each camera angle. Every detail on screen is a thought, from the scenery included in wide shots to the framing of each face in closeups.
You also immediately understand through the juxtapositions of this solitary man and his horse against semi trucks and cars and gas stations that this is a story about being a loner, an outsider. You GET the perspective.
Burns’s casual commentary on how borders shouldn’t divide people is particularly impactful right now, when it seems like the world is full of nothing but hate. The way he’s actually a decorated war veteran but is treated as a misfit because people are so f*cking quick to judge. I was especially struck by the final scene, where a cluster of cityfolk stand around Burns, staring at him with pity and curiosity, like he’s inhuman.
Douglas read the original novel, The Brave Cowboy, and immediately bought the rights. He passed it to his friend, ex-blacklisted Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, to turn into a script. And in an unprecedented move, they didn’t change a word from that first script.
I definitely have to read that book, because this is one captivating piece of storytelling. I mean, of course I wish it had a happy ending, I NEED Burns to have a happy ending in some alternate universe. But I understand why this one didn’t.
Lonely Are the Brave is so good that I have zero criticisms. It makes up for the fact that I had to suffer through The Kentuckian to be inspired to seek out another, better Walter Matthau Western. I will watch this movie over and over again. And I will ugly cry every single time.