'Never Grow Old': Film Review

Cusack does his best work in years as the soft-spoken villain.

Emile Hirsch and John Cusack star in Ivan Kavanagh's Western about an outlaw who takes over a frontier town.

Villainy becomes John Cusack. The actor, once a go-to lead in romantic comedies, has foundered in recent years, mainly playing supporting parts in direct-to-video mediocrities. But he has his best role in years in Dutch Albert, a quintessential bad guy who figures prominently in Ivan Kavanagh's old-fashioned Western Never Grow Old. Wearing the proverbial black hat and speaking his menacing lines in a husky, near-whisper, Cusack thoroughly galvanizes the proceedings.

Emile Hirsch also gives a terrific performance as the film's hero, Patrick Tate, an Irish immigrant who has settled in the Oregon territory with his French wife, Audrey (Deborah Francois), and their two young daughters. Patrick works an undertaker, normally a lucrative profession in the untamed West circa 1849. But business is down since the fire-and-brimstone preacher (Danny Webb) has banned alcohol, prostitution and gambling, three things that pretty much guarantee a steady stream of bodies to bury.

Patrick's fortunes change dramatically with the arrival of Dutch Albert and his gang including the mute Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who carries his severed tongue with him wherever he goes and brandishes it as a sort of sick party favor. Dutch has come to dispatch one of his former associates, but when he learns of the town's prohibitions, he senses an opportunity. He quickly buys the local hotel (he makes the owner an offer he can't refuse) and turns it into a well-stocked brothel.

At first Patrick goes along, doing his best to keep to himself even as Dutch, who has taken a strange liking to him, insinuates himself further and further into Patrick's life. However, as the town becomes transformed into a hellhole of violence and moral corruption, Patrick becomes more and more uneasy with his acquiescence. When Dumb-Dumb begins showing signs of being obsessed with Audrey, he feels compelled to take action.

It's an archetypal Western tale, albeit down and dirtier than most. Irish director-screenwriter Kavanagh, who shot the film in his native country, clearly has a fondness and affinity for the genre. But his vision is bleaker than the classic Westerns of years past, the setting perpetually dark and muddy. At times he gets carried away with the look, shooting scenes in such dim light that you struggle to make out what's going on. But the vividly nihilistic atmosphere certainly proves effective in keeping you unsettled.    

Hirsch is excellent as the mild-mannered Patrick who is inevitably forced to resort to violence, and Francois makes for a particularly spunky heroine. But it's Cusack who compels every moment he's onscreen, cluing you in that Dutch is well aware of his villainy, even while seemingly attempting to be polite, and also knows that you can see right through him. Cusack's dialogue is frequently witty, but his sly, understated performance is even wittier.

There's nothing in the film that we haven't seen countless times before. But it's a pleasure to see the familiar genre handled so expertly. Minus the gore and profanity-laden dialogue, Never Grow Old could have been made decades ago, and I mean that as a compliment.

Production: Ripple World Pictures, Irish Productions
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Emile Hirsch, John Cusack, Deborah Francois, Danny Webb
Director-screenwriter: Ivan Kavanagh
Producers: Dominic Wright, Jacqueline Kerrin, Nicolas Steil
Executive producers: James Atherton, Will Machin, Jan Price, Sam Parker, Jonathan Saba
Director of photography: Piers McGrail
Production designer: John Leslie
Editors: Dermot Diskin, Bernard Beets
Composer: Gast Waltzing
Costume designer: Jackye Fauconnier
Casting: Emma Gunnery

Rated R, 100 minutes