Here’s another gritty, pitiless Western carved out of archetypes and that favorite horse opera trope — the good man who eschews violence forced to take up a gun by armed thugs invading paradise.
Countless Westerns have been built on that framework, from “Firecreek” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
What sets “Never Grow Old” apart is its intimacy, canny casting and novel setting. It’s not every day that Ireland, with its lowering grey skies and wintry pallor, fill in for 1849 Oregon, which is where the remote “California Trail” town of Garlow is supposed to be.
That’s where Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) scrapes out a living. He’s an Irish immigrant, the local undertaker and town carpenter, struggling to feed his French wife (Déborah François, fierce) and two kids, with one more on the way.
Business hasn’t been good since the fire and brimstone Preacher Pike (Danny Webb) and his “temperance league” shut down the saloon and emptied out the whorehouse.
He may declare this “a holy town…a true Christian town” from the pulpit, but the money that was coming in through that saloon and brothel is missed. And without armed, drunken men getting into fights over women, cards or manners, Patrick’s hard-pressed to make ends meet.
“This isn’t the same town that we stopped in,” he gripes.
He’s a sensitive soul raising sweet children, all of them mourning the death of their plow horse, Patrick because it means “we go hungry.”
That’s when his “luck” changes. Armed brutes show up, looking for a missing member of their gang. They are the quintessential “men with guns,” ruthless bullies who get their way over the weak. Dutch Albert (John Cusack) wants to know where Billy Crabtree lives. And mere directions won’t do. He demands Patrick’s use as a guide, in the middle of a rainy night.
“Son, don’t make me ask you again.”
Events quickly unfold that demonstrate how serious these men are, and how helpless the town is, useless sheriff (Tim Ahern) and all. A saloon not serving alcohol? A “hotel” with no cook or available prostitutes? Dutch Albert, the brutish mute Dum Dum (Sam Louwyck) and “Italian, I think” Sicily (Camille Pistone) set about remaking the town in their own image — violent, above the law, drunk and corrupt.
And as they do, Patrick’s business booms. Burials aren’t free, you know. Whatever his wife thinks of his blood money and guilt by association with Dutch Albert, Patrick reluctantly goes along with it, corrupted by the corruption and murder he tolerates and profits from.
Cusack’s Dutch Albert is his most charismatic role in years, yet another black hat perpetually pulled down over his dark puffy eyes.
He’s smooth, if not exactly subtle at sewing the separation the once-Catholic Patrick feels towards his preacher and fellow townsfolk — “They don’t like the Irish much, do they?” He coos over Patrick’s “honest man’s work” hands, nicknames him “Saint Patrick” even as he drags him into Hell, or at least underground (a cave) to help him cover up his not-quite-finished murders.
“He’s here to bury you, Bill. No need to thank me. I know you’d do the same for me.”
Hirsch does well by Patrick’s story arc, a man who realizes he’s trapped in a morality tale, a parable about greed and “every man for himself” libertarianism, who endures the insults and indignities for a few pieces of silver, until the hoodlums go too far — repeatedly — and finally settle on his family as their next prey.
A favorite gripe of “The Golden Age of the Western” was how most of what Hollywood churned out during this era of the iconic American film genre looked the same.
Settings often used the same studio-owned ranches near Los Angeles, or productions would decamp for wilderness and National Parks land which shared the same waterless dust and sagebrush terrain — striking, but leaving the viewer thinking “Who could farm/raise cattle or do anything with nothing but sand and tumbleweeds to rely on?”
“Never Grow Old” — a terrible title, by the way — resembles “The Claim” in how striking and unusual its setting is. It’s disorienting, if not unheard of, seeing Westerners mostly clad in black under grey skies, contending with mud instead of dust.
Irish writer-director Ivan Kavanagh uses that arresting setting and his stars well, staging some of the violence off camera but never letting us forget the consequences of it by having Patrick pluck the bodies from the scenes of crimes — which he is helping cover up — and then prepare the torn and bloodied corpses for their entombment in wooden boxes he hammers out.
Kavanagh’s second coup was in giving this too-familiar tale just the right star power, with the criminally under-used Hirsch shining as our anti-hero and Cusack, settling into the playing-the-heavy part of his career with as much wit as he can muster.
We’re long removed from the Western’s gilded age. But grimy, bloody lower-budget fare like “Hostiles,””The Kid” and “Never Grow Old” remind us that there’s value in remembering the genre and what it says about our country’s history of violence, even if we have to shoot the film in Ireland to make it look new and fresh.
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language, some sexual content and brief drug use
Cast: Emile Hirsch, John Cusack, Déborah François, Danny Webb.
Credits:Written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:40