GFF 2018: Jared Moshe's western doesn't reinvent the wheel, but finds a new hero to root for
The Ballad of Lefty Brown opens with a quote from famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner about the frontier being too strong for men to face down without first evolving. In 1889 Montana, the frontier is coming to an end, railroads will soon see to that. Progress they call it.
Change too is coming for legendary lawman, and soon-to-be US senator, Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) and his long-time partner Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman), but not before we see them dish out frontier-style justice one last time. When Johnson is murdered at long range, Lefty is left to head out on a mission of vigilante revenge – what else is a loyal sidekick to do?
If it all sounds familiar, that's because The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a fairly run-of-the-mill western pastiche and its commentary on myth-making is long since familiar – this isn't revisionism anymore. Except Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) isn't supposed to be the hero. He's not the gunslinger dime novels were written about. And he's preferably not to be trusted with much other than a little light comic relief in your posse of deputies.
Credit to writer-director Jared Moshe (Dead Man's Burden) for putting Pullman's Walter Brennan-aping sidekick – complete with limp, funky hat and voice manner – front and centre, bringing a fresh perspective to a paint-by-tropes genre flick. This unique-selling point can't disguise a deeply pedestrian plot coloured in with a drunk sheriff, a corrupt politician and a kid dreaming of six-shooter fame.
Still, it's all very serviceable, the shootouts are short and sharp, the landscapes grand, and Pullman enjoyably inhabits this folksy, have-a-go-hero that everyone underestimates. It's a sensitive, layered performance that makes Lefty someone worthy of a ballad. A shame then the film can't live up to his actions.
Screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2018. General release TBC.