Here’s one of those “upend your expectations, pardner” Westerns of the modern mold, a movie about a “sidekick” forced to take over the story when the hero gets bushwhacked.
“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” isn’t about a famous gunslinger, lawman, desperado or rancher who “tamed the West.” Lefty (Bill Pullman) isn’t the sort who’d provide fodder for the dime novels favored by the young sidekick (Diego Josef) he takes on for his “revenge quest,” the sort of thing a man’s gotta do when a man’s pardner is killed right before his eyes.
Writer-director Jared Moshe’s genre “oater” didn’t merit much of a theatrical release (if any) when it turned up on DirecTV, thanks to production studio A24’s shortcomings when it comes to distribution and promotion. But as it’s on Netflix, let’s see if it’s worth hunting down.
Pullman’s character is a limping, slow-talking geezer with mutton chops and a funny, high-mileage hat. Lefty Brown isn’t bad at tracking, but he was never much with a six-gun. Even a rifle isn’t going to get him close to the target with his “old man” eyesight. Given a choice, he’s packing a shotgun.
He isn’t all that tough, and when it comes to chasing rustlers, he’s better at tracking than he is about sneaking up on anybody. The bad hombres are always getting the drop on him.
As he nearly botches an arrest in the opening scene, he’s asked the question that’s implied throughout this somber, violent sagebrush saga.
“Lefty, aren’t you a little gray to be making these mistakes?”
But Lefty’s never had to be the lead, the go-to-guy. He’s always been content to be in the shadows of legendary Montana rancher Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda, in one of his last roles). Lefty is “loyal.” And with Johnson bound for the Senate, Lefty might be just the guy to leave in charge of the ranch. Or not, if Mrs. Johnson (Kathy Baker, fierce) has any say in the matter.
“‘Loyal’ is not the same thing as ‘capable.'”
But somebody’s got to run the place, and most of the other hands are tinhorns, or close to it. None of them are seasoned enough to go after the rustlers who grab a few horses, Edward reasons. That’s why he and Lefty are all alone, tracking and reminiscing, when a horse thief with a rifle (Joe Anderson) unloads on them from a safe distance.
Edward is dead, and if Lefty hadn’t played dead, he’d never have gotten the body back to the ranch. The new widow isn’t impressed with him, or his promise.
“I’m’o GIT that sumbitch, or die tryin’!”
He takes off on his own, with nobody’s blessing, stumbles into a trigger-happy tinderfoot (Josef), who’s armed, loaded with dime novels, and horseless. And they’re off on their quixotic quest to bring bad men to some sort of justice — formal or “rough” justice.
That’s a running thread through “The Ballad,” Lefty’s reluctance to rush a hanging, killing the accused without a trial. Others are content to mete out their cowboy posse form of law enforcement. But not Lefty, and not his old friend Marshal Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan of “Gladiator” and TV’s “Sons of Anarchy” and Westworld”).
As obstacles traditional and new cross their path, one would hope they’d all listen to the governor (Jim Caviezel) and “let the Army handle it,” seeing as how somebody murdered a Senator-elect. But that’s not the Way of the West, is it?
Moshe, who hasn’t gotten a movie or TV project up and in the public eye in the years since “Lefty” was finished in 2017, stages a decent shootout and his DP captures stunning vistas around Bannack, Montana, the setting and the filming location.
The plainly-right-handed Pullman makes “Lefty” just the sort of simple old cuss you underestimate, a fellow who “couldn’t find his ass with both hands,” Marshal Harrah grouses.
The story drifts off into “that never happened” territory, and the waypoints and characters start to resemble a collection of cliches — this one crawled into a bottle, then a “spittoon” to collect coins to buy the bottle, that one’s armed to the teeth but wholly unprepared for that first shoot-out.
But the cast is a game lot, with Pullman, Baker, Flanagan and Caviezel standing out. And there’s only so many times one can watch and re-watch the classics of the genre without craving a fresh take on the comfort food-familiar themes.
“Lefty,” while not nearly as good as “The Sisters Brothers” or “Old Henry,” to name two recent exemplars of the genre, is a perfectly passable “horse opera” and a fine vehicle for the ever-underappreciated Mr. Pullman — who rides well, wears the hat and not the other way’round, and carries off a limp and a squint with the best of them.
Rating: R for violence and some language
Cast: Bill Pullman, Tommy Flanagan, Kathy Baker, Diego Josef, Peter Fonda and Jim Caviezel
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jared Moshe. A Dish Networks film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:51