Starring: Bill Pullman, Kathy Baker, Jim Caviezel, Tommy Flanagan, Peter Fonda
Director: Jared Moshe
Mood: If you have the urge to watch a strong Western story that also yanks on your heartstrings and has you anxiously rooting for a sweet old grizzled dude who happens to be Bill Pullman.
YOU HAD ME AT BILL PULLMAN!
Seriously, I’ve had a huge crush on Mr. Pullman ever since Spaceballs. He’s just perfect – he can be the dreamy romantic lead, or the serious man in charge, or a smart-mouthed badass. He was only in A League of Their Own for a few minutes, and I was like “yes Geena Davis, quit your dream right now and go home with that sexy man!”.
(I’m only sort of kidding – Kit deserved her moment in the spotlight. Why should Dottie get to win the World Series AND have a Bill Pullman?!)
Well. The Ballad of Lefty Brown is none of those Bill Pullmans.
This is one of the only Westerns I’ve ever bought without knowing anything about it – I literally ordered it within seconds of reading ‘Bill Pullman’ and ‘Western’ on Amazon. I was hoping for a juicier role than his turn in Wyatt Earp, and expecting another rugged Lone Star type. It’s a Western – there’s usually a strong man in charge. Instead, I was floored at the grizzled, bumbling old man that is Pullman’s titular Lefty.
But within minutes I was so caught up in the story that I forgot my expectations. Lefty Brown could win over even the most rigidly anti-Western killjoy out there.
Lefty Brown takes place in 1889 Montana. Lefty (Pullman) is an aging ranch hand for newly elected Senator Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda). You can tell from scenes like this at the get-go that everyone except his boss thinks Lefty is a joke.
The senator’s wife Laura (Kathy Baker) makes constant cutting remarks about Lefty being unfit for any task, even though the senator trusts him: “Lefty will run this ranch just fine. He’s ridden with me for 40 years now.” “So has your horse.”
When the senator is gunned down – for which Lefty gets blamed because he was there and didn’t somehow magically stop the bullet – Lefty vows to avenge his death. But no one takes him seriously, because he’s Lefty and he’s never really done much of anything.
Now this old guy who has spent his entire adult life hearing and believing that he’s useless, has to strive to be everything strong and just that he saw in his boss.
There is SO MUCH to love about Lefty Brown. The acting, the writing, the cinematography… it instantly became one of my favourites.
There are two outstanding performances that I need to gush about – Bill Pullman (obvs) and Tommy Flanagan.
Flanagan plays the tormented Tom Harah, a friend of the late Senator Johnson who joins Lefty’s quest for justice. This is a fascinatingly complex character of a sort you don’t get often enough in modern Westerns. He’s haunted by demons both past and present, and Flanagan is absolutely f*cking brilliant at evoking every bit of that emotional roller coaster.
Pullman’s Lefty starts out as more of a sweet and slightly senile grandpa than a fierce avenger. But he’s also honest and loyal to a fault. My chest hurt through the entire movie, watching him avoid eye contact as he’s constantly underestimated and abused (and almost hung), never biting back – when the whole time he was the only real good guy.
I mean yeah, you can see how it was probably exasperating to work with a man who wasn’t the strongest, or the smartest, or the fastest. But seriously, everyone at that ranch was a bunch of assholes.
By the end of the movie, you realize how often Lefty actually says smart things or shows good sense, but still gets zero credit.
The only non-asshole Lefty meets is the young Jeremiah Perkins (Diego Josef). The eager kid runs into him by chance, and latches onto him in hopes of finding an adventure.
We’ve seen similarly endearing young men in tons of modern Westerns: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Kid in The Quick and the Dead, Balthazar Getty’s Tom O’Folliard in Young Guns II, and Gregory Smith’s Jim Younger in American Outlaws, to name a few.
But whereas those other young ‘uns were disposable, Jeremiah is an integral part of Lefty’s journey. Their relationship is so f*cking sweet, I can’t even handle it.
Jeremiah is obsessed with dime novels about Wild West heroes, and even though Lefty was apparently present for lots of those escapades, he was never mentioned. But the kid soon starts asking for Lefty’s own awesome stories, and you see him go from humble surprise to delight and it’s heart-meltingly cute.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kathy Baker’s character. Laura Johnson is a true pioneer rancher’s wife. She’s restrained but tough, even in her most vulnerable moments of heartbreak. It’s hard to watch her be cruel to Lefty over and over again. Baker did a great job of being relentlessly tough from start to finish.
Actually, that pissed me off – Laura never apologized.
I realize I’ve made this movie sound like it’s all emo and heart-warming goo. It’s still a proper Western, and a f*cking great one at that. There are excellent shootouts, and the other characters (Laura included) more than make up for Lefty’s lack of machismo.
At one point Lefty performs an insanely clumsy bullet removal, and it’s like… how is this both horrifying and hilarious?
SPOILER ALERT! Apparently many critics didn’t like The Ballad of Lefty Brown because the story is built on a factual error. The governor had the senator killed so he could replace him with his own man, but the replacement would have been elected, not appointed. But probably every Western ever made contains at least some historical inaccuracy. That seems like a seriously stupid reason to punish a brilliant movie.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown is completely awesome, and I’m surprised it didn’t get nominated for any big awards. I can’t find a fault with it. If you don’t like it, you probably have a rotten avocado for a heart.