'The Ballad of Lefty Brown': Film Review

David McFarland
An elegiac adventure that gets better as it goes.

Bill Pullman is a grizzled sidekick trying to do right by his old partner in Jared Moshe's Western.

Grizzled and limping, speaking with a reserved twang full of self-doubt, Bill Pullman is nobody's ten-gallon hero in The Ballad of Lefty Brown. Rather, Jared Moshe's second feature casts him as a loyal loser trying to do right after the usual men of action have disappeared or been corrupted, even if it seems sure to kill him. Lensed on celluloid in big-sky Montana, the old-fashioned picture will win the hearts of some viewers simply by existing. But though slow to get rolling, it eventually builds into a worthy showcase for Pullman, who himself has too rarely stepped out of support roles.

For decades, Lefty has ridden by the side of Peter Fonda's Edward Johnson, helping him survive the Old West's dangers and become a wealthy rancher. Now elected to serve as the new state of Montana's first senator, Johnson will head for Washington and leave the ranch in Lefty's care — much to the concern of Mrs. Johnson (Kathy Baker), who, old friends or no, believes he's not up to the responsibility.

While this is being debated, the two men ride out alone to retrieve three stolen horses. One of the rustlers (Joe Anderson's Frank) ambushes them, shooting the senator and leaving Lefty for dead. After bringing his friend's body home, Lefty strikes out on his own to find the killer.

Nobody thinks he has a chance of that, especially not two old members of the senator's crew who soon arrive to pay condolences: Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan), a U.S. Marshal who lost many years to the bottle, and Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), who recently became the state's governor. Harrah goes off to keep Lefty out of trouble while Bierce returns to the duties of his office — which, in his view, lie mainly in the arena of opening the state up wide to railroads and other deep-pocket interests. Meanwhile, Lefty stumbles across a wet-behind-the-ears kid (Diego Josef's Jeremiah) who fancies himself a gunslinger.

Though this isn't an undue amount of scene-setting, Moshe paces it rather sluggishly, leaving us as ready as young Jeremiah is to hear the old-timers talk of a livelier age. The screenplay covers some "print the legend" ground before letting Lefty open up in ways that suggest he wasn't always the unreliable second fiddle. And then, just as he's finding himself rising to new challenges, Lefty is accused of having killed his best friend.

Having already given us a shootout or two, the film grows more involving as Lefty fights for both his life and his good name. Pullman has no trouble making the character sympathetic, even as he maintains the near-ineptitude Lefty's known for. (His quick, satisfied chuckle when Jeremiah rescues Lefty from a standoff is one of the pic's larger small pleasures.)

The movie's drama eventually squares nicely with the traditional pairing of big liberty-versus-civilization themes and dramas of personal temperament. Lefty, though hardly a master of the unruly wilderness, may not be able to live in the world to come. This Ballad loves him for that, and happily gives him one last adventure worth singing about.

Production companies: Higher Content, Om Films, Armian Pictures, Rival Pictures
Distributor: A24
Cast: Bill Pullman, Peter Fonda, Tommy Flanagan, Jim Caviezel, Diego Josef, Kathy Baker
Director-screenwriter: Jared Moshe
Producers: Neda Armian, Dan Burks, Jared Moshe, Edward Parks
Executive producer: Niraj Bhatia
Director of photography: David McFarland
Production designer: Eve McCarney
Costume designer: Jonny Pray
Editor: Terel Gibson
Composer: H. Scott Salinas
Casting directors: Sunday Boling, Tina Buckingham, Meg Morman
Venue: Woodstock Film Festival

Rared R, 111 minutes