New Mexico in the late 19th century, as shown in JT Mollner’s “Outlaws and Angels,” is a land where zealotry and hypocrisy go hand and hand, where Thomas Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish and short” characterization of human nature guides every interpersonal relationship. While that may not be an inaccurate characterization of what small-town life was like in the American Southwest during the Cleveland administration, “Outlaws and Angels” overestimates its own elegance, delivering a misguided ode to frontier ugliness.
Fittingly, “Outlaws and Angels” opens with a bloodbath, a bank heist gone wrong that leaves a US Marshall dead. The gang responsible for the crime, armed by ringleader Henry (Chad Michael Murray) and laden with the fruits of their labor, quickly seek refuge from their newly-earned bounty. Starving and with no means of transportation across the Mexican border, the group happens on an unassuming farmhouse, home to the local preacher George Tildon (Ben Browder), his wife Ada (Teri Polo) and their two daughters: eager-to-please Charlotte (Madisen Beaty) and headstrong tomboy Flo (Francesca Eastwood).
Before long, Henry’s trio forcefully assumes control of the property, setting off a manipulative pas de deux between the outlaws and their new Tildon captives. Unfortunately, this shift in leadership, brings sidekicks Charles (Nathan Russell) and Little Joe (Keith Loneker) to the fore. Their schizophrenic waffling between sinister predators and oafish clowns gives them an unhinged edge, but their inconsistent swings from one side of their characters to the other are the first indication that Mollner might be writing himself out of a compelling story.
What Mollner eventually finds in the slow burn hostage story he quickly jettisons for a empty-motivation morality play where sexual violence is meted out as a means of creating narrative tension. A horror in more ways than one, it revels in an eye-for-an-eye ethos that, if not dangerous, is often interminable. One particular assault, though done without nudity, still feels embarrassingly gratuitous, pushing past its relevance to the story and existing as a way to test the audience’s endurance. This is a film where a man is offered mercy after being threatened with rape, while we’re forced to watch a woman endure hers, just to shore up the bad guy’s bona fides.
All of this plotting and misplaced emphasis is made all the more disappointing by the romance at the film’s center. Together, Eastwood and Murray make for a compelling on-screen couple, especially as the film teases both of their true intentions. As the beginnings of a romance blossom between Henry and Flo, Murray and Eastwood emerge as the film’s rightful anchors.
With his mumble-affected Southern drawl, Murray brings a level-headedness to a story beset by seesawing motivations and violence for outrage’s sake. Henry does his share of shooting, but his occasional dashes of restraint give the film a much-needed respite from his regrettable partners in crime. Flo’s gradual evolution from family reject to someone of worth is an impressive showcase for Eastwood, but the various layers that Mollner wraps in Flo’s empowerment do little to make it anything more than murky vindication at best.
Shooting on film (a choice proudly announced in the film’s opening credits) offers Mollner a spiritual connection to the ’60s and ’70s titles that were the film’s obvious reference points. It also helps give a natural layer of grime to “Outlaws and Angels” that the endless parade of blood packs, fake vomit and bodily threat fail to add.
Once they get past the incessant snap zooms that persist long past character introductions, Mollner and DP Matthew Irving do find engaging ways to move the camera throughout the Tildon cabin for a few extended-take sequences. A subplot with a pair of bounty hunters (Luke Wilson and Steven Michael Quezada) on Henry’s trail gives Mollner a chance to take advantage of the untouched wilderness, but like many of the film’s other strengths, both actors and their panoramic surroundings are given short shrift.
Between the setting, the production design and a majority of the cast, “Outlaws and Angels” has the individual pieces to be something of merit. This particular revenge tale isn’t an example of incompetent filmmaking, just sadly misfocused storytelling. Life in 1887 wasn’t easy, but at some point, there has to be something more to say.
“Outlaws and Angels” opens today in theaters and on VOD.