Bill Pullman might not be the most obvious choice for a western hero at this stage of his career, but that’s exactly what makes him ideal for “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” which isn’t about an obvious Western hero. As the titular Lefty, Pullman plays a 63-year-old sidekick in the wilds of late 19th century Montana, where he’s forced to take charge when the traditional hero (Peter Fonda) is suddenly killed. By giving the spotlight to an archetype usually relegated to the background, writer-director Jared Moshé puts a revisionist spin on the familiar oater, but everything else about “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” is by the book.
Moshé’s sophomore effort further illustrates his obsession and deep familiarity with the classic Western mold. His debut, 2012’s “Dead Man’s Burden,” was a taut, minimalist tale of a family battling to save its land from a greedy mining company on the New Mexico frontier. “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” may as well exist in the same expanded universe, shifting the setting to Montana but applying the same elegant attention to barren, gold-hued landscapes copy and pasted right out of John Ford’s oeuvre. Once again shooting on glorious 35mm film (the first thing we see before the title credits is a Kodak logo, which registers as a boast), Moshé resurrects the big screen possibilities of a genre in pure visual terms.
But the movie really belongs to Pullman, who’s the same age as his character and clearly invested in the potential of this underdog story. Adopting a high-pitch whine and the staggered movements of an aging rider, he risks turning Lefty into a two-bit caricature and instead delivers his best performance in years, a genuine lead role where you’d least expect it. Lefty doesn’t expect it, either: When we first meet him, he’s content with his life in the shadows of the legendary Eddie Johnson (Fonda), a revered gunslinger on the verge of a new stage of his life as a U.S. Senator. Eddie’s a benevolent soul eager to hand over his ranch to Lefty, though Eddie’s wife (Kathy Baker) feels less confident about Lefty’s abilities to do anything other than chase her husband’s coattails. But that all changes one day when the two men are riding around on the outskirts of town and an unseen gunman puts a bullet through Eddie’s brain, and Lefty’s suddenly more alone than ever before.
As with “Dead Man’s Burden,” Moshé doesn’t overextend the material with a huge ensemble. Instead, he sticks with Lefty as the defiant figure heads back to the wilderness on the trail of Eddie’s killer, promising vengeance even as his longtime cohorts roll their eyes. These include Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan, steely-eyed and reserved), a hard-drinking U.S. marshal tasked with bringing Lefty back home and inextricably drawn into his quest, as well as the hawkish governor Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel). Meanwhile, Lefty scores a potential sidekick of his own, running into the adventurous young loner Jeremiah (Diego Josef), who’s all too eager to join Lefty’s quest for vengeance.
With time, however, the movie falls short of giving Lefty the exciting drama he deserves. Eventually, his ramshackle posse confronts a conniving outlaw (Adam O’Bryne) as bullets fly, and “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” sags into a bland series of grim showdowns. While it sets up an appealing group of characters, Moshé’s script lacks the meaty themes of the movies that inspired it, alluding to a political scandal in broad strokes that distract from the strength of its central character. Even as it emphasizes an unconventional protagonist, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” lacks the complex themes of race or greed at the root of timeless entries from “The Searchers” to “Ride the High Country.” The Western setting usually provides fertile ground for exploring distinctly American paradoxes, but too often this low-rent homage feels more like talented actors playing dress up. Its shortcomings are especially prominent in the third act, which registers as more of a shrug than the payoff one might hope with such an unorthodox centerpiece.
But one has to give credit to the purity of Moshé’s ambition. Without an iota of hyper-stylized Tarantinoesque pastiche, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” plays like the kind of sturdy B-movie that might have been shot with the leftover set from a bigger production, and stands as a reminder of just how much Hollywood has retreated from this fertile genre. The Western vista was once a kingdom ruled by John Wayne, and has gone through various other permutations since then, but now it has dwindled into the cinematic equivalent of Lefty himself — written off by most of the world, but rich with potential and hankering for another shot. Moshé would be wise to keep giving it just that.
“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.