It’s a little game movie critics play when we’re watching self-distributed or under-distributed indie films. Guess which scene, which moment, which element prevented this picture from winning a better studio distribution deal?
“The Bygone” is a moody, mournful Modern West meets Old West tale of racism, sex trafficking and a meek young man trying to “cowboy up” to save the damsel in distress.
The racism is the Old West prejudice against Native Americans, still in evidence in the New West all along the Fracking Belt, where oil patch money releases dormant greed and ancient hostility.
The sex trafficking comes in the form of young women, many of them Native American, lured or kidnapped into prostitution by ruthless operators looking to take oil rig workers’ money out there in the middle of nowhere.
And the cowboy in question is Kip, given a winning aw-shucks naivete by Graham Phillips, who co-wrote and directed “The Bygone” with his brother Parker Phillips.
Dad (Jamie McShane) has gout and has been slowly but surely going under, and taking the ranch with him, since Mom died. Mom? She was Lakota.
Lonely, lacking any real male guidance in his life other than ranch hand Bear (Tokala Black Elk), Kip winds up in a brothel, which he instantly figures out is NOT the place for him.
But before he can go, he clumsily intervenes in a beating a young prostitute (Sydney Schafer) is taking from a roughneck customer. That leads to him bringing her home with him, not that she’s all that grateful.
“Jus’ tryin’ t’help!”
“Can you buy me a new car, fly me someplace nice?”
Her fleeing earns Kip the ire of the ruthless pimp Paris (veteran screen heavy Shawn Hatosy, most recently on TV’s “Animal Kingdom”). The beating Kip takes when he loses the girl — “Laura” Paris and his other hookers call her, Waniya is her real name — is not enough to persuade him to give up.
He ignores his daddy’s warnings, and enlists the aid of folksy/gutsy sheriff (Mike McColl of “North Woods Law”) and his shady rich uncle, Beckett (Ritchie Coster), a man a little too eager to bail Kip’s dad out of financial hole their ranch is in.
Early scenes set a lovely tone, a world of dust and mud and scratching out a living in a place not suited for growing much of anything. “Bygone” was shot in Oklahoma, and is set in the booming oil patch of North Dakota (Lakota live there, and Williston is mentioned).
We’re set up for “The Rider” meets “Wind River,” a dying profession and way of living, Native Americans in distress, married to a story of that favorite thriller villainy du jour, human trafficking.
An opening title asserts that “sexual violence” was “virtually non-existent” before European settlement of North America, setting up our story of young women enslaved by this pimp, not able to reach the battered women’s shelter run by Ms. Call (Irene Bedard).
But the “messaging” that bookends this tale only reminds us how little attention it pays to that issue in the interest of delivering a compelling chase thriller, where the object is to track down the woman who has been “taken” and deal with the brute who took her.
The Phillips brothers handle the fights and little dollops of suspense well. There’s a bar brawl as expertly-staged, lit, filmed and edited as any I’ve seen. Most scenes have an organic truth about them, most of the characters feel lived-in and real, and the film’s unhurried pace lets Kip learn his lessons slowly, one beating at a time.
“You cain’t go after a wolf, not when you’re a sheep,” one minion chortles at the hero.
And then there’s that moment I mentioned in the review’s opening, the scene and sequence that is so utterly over-the-top and absurd, Message with a capital “M,” that it spoils much of the movie that came before it.
The finale in this damned thing is more worthy of “Silence of the Lambs” with a setting and a ludicrous, chatty villain straight out of “The Wild Wild West” — Buffalo Bill meets Buffalo Bob, or Sideshow Bob.
The picture, which flirts with “They’re blowing it” once or twice before then, goes straight in the toilet right before the closing credits. Didn’t land the big check and wider release? That’s why. The last thing this movie needs is a NoDak epicurean and Seventh Cavalry history buff who talks us right out of the picture.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, drugs, sex
Cast: Graham Phillips, Sydney Schafer, Shawn Hatosy, Jamie McShane, Ritchie Coster, Mike McColl and Irene Bedard
Running time: 1:45