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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an undeconstructed and unreconstructed western of the kind that they don’t make any more.

And for good reason.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a western that would have been of middling quality amid the great glut of fifties westerns, and which feels hopelessly outdated in the modern world. The Ballad of Lefty Brown doesn’t just feel disconnected from the wave of modern postcolonial westerns like The Hateful EightBlack ’47, The Revenant or Bone Tomahawk, nor even the deconstructionist westerns of the early nineties like Unforgiven. Instead, The Ballad of Lefty Brown feels like it missed the introspection and analysis of sixties westerns like A Fistful of Dollars.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown often feels less like a film and more an assemblage of familiar western clichés with no innovation or elaboration. The good guys refer to our hero by his full name “Lefty Brown”, even those who should be on first- or nickname terms with him. The bad guy is called “Baines”, and conveniently can’t be bothered to execute a heroic character who is at his mercy. Even beyond Baines, the real villains of the piece are the evil railroad company, threatening as they are to quash the freedom of these legends to live in a state close to romantic anarchy.

The issue is not that these are tired and familiar clichés. The issue is that these are clichés that have already been taken apart and put back together countless times. Any audience with any cinematic literacy has watched westerns that have extrapolated from and expanded upon the concepts that The Ballad of Lefty Brown wholeheartedly embraces. Even forgettable modern westerns like Hostiles understand the workings of the modern cinematic landscape and the expectations of modern audiences when it comes to watching westerns. However, The Ballad of Lefty Brown feels adrift and disconnected.

There is no insight here, no exploration of the myth of the Wild West. When “Lefty” discovers that he has been omitted the pulpy accounts of western derring-do involving his close friends, the film never questions the cynical cultivation of these legends nor the horrific truths on which they are based. There is no discussion about how much of the mythology of the old west was fabricated or distorted, how easily the truth is allowed to slip between the cracks, particularly when those who lived it fade into history.

In the world of The Ballad of Lefty Brown, real life is just a different mythic Wild West. The character never have to confront the idea that times are changing, or that their past is a romantic fiction. When the eponymous cowboy is left out of the history books, the film does not pause to wonder whether any of those documented adventures really happened, and whether the real cowboy is simply being erased to make way for a more mythic figure. Instead, it is revealed that “Lefty” lived his own wild adventures that just never saw print. The character’s biggest epiphany is that he needed a better agent.

To be fair, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is mostly competent. The cast are solid, even if Bill Pullman is clearly striving for the sort of soul-bearing late-stage career-reviving performance that has become a staple of modern middle-aged movie stars. Some part of Pullman seems to believe that this might be for him what The Wrestler was to Mickey Rourke or what Nebraska was to Bruce Dern or even what Brawl in Cell Block 99 might be for Vince Vaughn. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the performer are up to the task.

There is something conceptually interesting in the character of “Lefty”, suggesting a bolder and more intriguing film than that ultimately delivered. In its concept, The Ballad of Lefty Brown suggests something more self-aware than the finished film. In some ways, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is the story of a plucky western comic relief sidekick who manages to outlive his heroic companion. The film reinforces this by casting the legendary Peter Fonda in a tiny, but central, role as the legendary long-time companion to the eponymous cowboy.

Pullman plays up this interpretation of the film as a metafictional tragedy, presenting “Lefty” as a collection of bumbling and mumbling quirks, a goofy supporting character cast unexpectedly into the lead role. However, Pullman never manages to find anything resembling humanity in the lead role, never deepens “Lefty” in the way that the script demands. The emotional weight of The Ballad of Lefty Brown is placed on the idea that “Lefty” was always the hero of his own story. However, neither Pullman nor the script can convincingly sell this idea.

“Lefty” is not the only character who feels like he belongs in a better film. Jim Caviezel is the only cast member who makes much of an impression, as the inevitably villainous Governor James Bierce. Caviezel has often felt like an actor out of time, a performer who would be more comfortable and at home as a leading man several decades removed from the present day. As Bierce, Caviezel ironically hints at a much better film. Even imagining Caviezel as the grim antiheroic protagonist of a seventies revisionist western feels much more interesting than the film as it was delivered.

The decidedly old-fashioned aesthetic of The Ballad of Lefty Brown is mostly bland, but it does lead to some ill-judged creative choices. Like many classic westerns, the film is largely blind to the existence of anybody but white settlers in the old west, barring a couple of supporting characters; a Native American gang member, and an African American ranch hand. This leads to a decidedly clumsy narrative choice towards the climax of the film, when the most prominent black character in the entire story leads an attempted lynching of the protagonist.

The sequence is the inevitable result of the unquestioning and undeconstructed nostalgia of The Ballad of Lefty Brown, a desire to play the tropes and conventions of the classic western dead straight without any consideration or thought. The railroad companies are the villains of The Ballad of Lefty Brown not because they participate in the genocide of the country’s indigenous population, but because they represent civilisation imposing order on the white settlers. Lynching is not a tool of racial oppression, but just an example of frontier justice occasionally misdirected.

In some ways, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a reminder of how far the western has come over the past few decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium. Seeing the classic conventions presented with steadfast earnestness and untempered nostalgia underscores the necessity of the genre’s course correction from the sixties through to the present day. The best that can be said about The Ballad of Lefty Brown is that it provides a meaningful contrast with even mid-tier modern westerns like Hostiles.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is predictable, generic, and with nothing compelling or interesting to say.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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