THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN
Director: Jared Moshe
Cast: Bill Pullman, Tommy Flanagan, Kathy Baker, Jim Caviezel, Diego Josef, Joe Anderson, Peter Fonda
MPAA Rating: (for violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:51
Release Date: 12/15/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 14, 2017
The only thing more established than the archetypes of the Western is, perhaps, the genre's plot formula. The Ballad of Lefty Brown looks to subvert the archetypes, primarily by giving us a story in which the comic sidekick is ostensibly the hero. You know the type of character—the loyal right-hand man who saddles the horses, packs the supplies, hangs around the real hero with a look of unenvious admiration in his eyes, and maybe stumbles or falls down every so often so that the audience can have a good laugh at his expense. That's more or less the essence of Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) when we first meet him. The movie's central question is how he reacts—how he changes and doesn't change—to having his place in the world completely upended.
That's the intriguing aspect of writer/director Jared Moshe's movie—seeing how a character whose identity is firmly established by his four decades of being in the same line of work and even more so by several more decades of this particular type of story. We know just about everything we need to know about Lefty from his first appearance in the movie. From his grizzled-beard face, he possesses that look of reverence for his boss. In his tattered clothes, he hobbles more than he walks.
He's happy to be in a servile position to a famed lawman, because he knows that making sure the boss has his things in order means that he'll be able to do good and do it well. Lefty is a man of no ambition, little thought beyond the needs of his boss Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), and a level of allegiance that's possibly unmatched in this changing world of the West.
The story is set in 1889, in the newly established state of Montana. Edward is moving up in stature. After 40 years of being a local enforcer of the law, he has been elected to the United States Senate. This leaves Lefty in a tough spot. Edward knows his trusty sidekick isn't fit for Washington, D.C., and Edward's wife Laura (Kathy Baker) isn't keen on her husband's plan of having Lefty tend to the family ranch while they're away.
Soon enough, none of that really matters. While looking for some stray cattle, Edward is shot and killed by an outlaw. Lefty is there for his boss' murder, sees the killer, and sets off to bring him to justice.
This means that the plot is overly familiar. That's fine, in theory, since it's the story's smaller beats that reveal how Lefty responds to his uncertain station, his newfound purpose, and his recognition that his life has gone unrecognized in the annals of the West—and will continue to do so well after he's dead. Moshe even assigns Lefty his own sidekick, an upstart kid named Jeremiah (Diego Josef). Jeremiah has read about Edward and his team of lawmen's adventures, complete with embellishments and revisions, and he's set on becoming a similar sort of legend. Lefty, obviously, doesn't appear in any of the kid's dime novels. Learning this doesn't come so much as a realization to Lefty as it does a confirmation of his third or fourth billing in the story of his own life.
As for the rest of the old posse, there are Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan), who has been promoted to a U.S. Marshall after his exploits with Edward, and James Reece (Jim Caviezel), who has since moved into politics and become Montana's first governor. Laura and the more respectable members of her husband's old gang want the Army to track down Edward's killer. After all, the West has become civilized, and justice needs to be doled out in a civilized fashion, unlike Edward's old ways.
There are plenty of ideas here, not only about Lefty's character and legacy, but also about the changing environment of the West. Unfortunately, they're mostly sidetracked, ignored, or reduced to plot points (The entire notion of the West becoming civilized mostly serves as a motive for Edward's real killer). The plot takes over, with a big conspiracy to unravel, a couple of red herrings, and a false accusation against Lefty. We can sense that Moshe brings in these other characters to further examine the idea of Western archetypes, but there's not much to those (Tom, a recovering alcoholic, goes back to the bottle, and Laura can handle herself, thank you very much). Instead, they're here to keep the plot moving and unfolding, until an ultimate revelation and resolution that squarely fits the genre's narrative mold, without any attempt to alter it.
The weird thing, then, is that Lefty, whose life before this adventure has been one of a sidekick, essentially becomes a bit player in his own story. History won't kind to Lefty, but we think the The Ballad of Lefty Brown will be. Instead, he's pushed into the background until the third act.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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