‘Outlaws and Angels’: Film Review

Outlaws And Angels Francesca Eastwood H 2016
Momentum Pictures
Not for the fainthearted.

Luke Wilson is a bounty hunter trailing a gang of ruthless bank robbers in JT Mollner’s tribute to low-budget Westerns.

Indiscriminate frontier violence occasionally approaches the level of black comedy in JT Mollner’s debut feature, a home-invasion thriller disguised as a retro-stylized Western. Set in the late 1880s following the conclusion of Civil War hostilities in the Southwest, Outlaws and Angels seethes with antisocial menace, revealing layers of criminality among the lower classes as it lays bare the hypocrisy of upstanding citizens and criminals alike with evident relish.

Borrowing from both classic and contemporary narrative templates, the film conveys ample shock value, but comes up short thematically in its revisionist attempt to recharacterize the rough realities of frontier life. It’s hard to say whether the incessant cruelty on display could be more off-putting than the frequent misogyny for viewers unprepared to accept Mollner’s reductionist worldview, but genre fans could provide the theatrical release with sufficient momentum to eventually boost the film in ancillary formats.

A reflective voiceover disarmingly introduces the town of Chuchillo, New Mexico, just before it’s convulsed by an armed daylight bank robbery led by Henry (Chad Michael Murray) and abetted by his gang of outlaws, who accidently kill a U.S. Marshall in the course of the heist. Although they escape with only one casualty, the audacious crime results in an unprecedented $8,000 bounty for their retrieval, dead or alive. Realizing that most escape routes out of the area will be unsafe, Henry persuades reluctant sidekick Charlie (Nathan Russell) and loyal Union veteran Joe (Keith Loneker) to follow a little-used trail through the state’s infamous badlands, where food and water are scarce, as they head for the Mexican border with a sizable haul of gold coins.

The only bounty hunters unreasonable enough to pursue them for the outsized reward, Josiah (Luke Wilson who provides the voiceover narration) and his partner Alonzo (Steven Michael Quezada) doggedly follow their trail through the desolate landscape. Once their horses give out, the outlaw trio continue on foot, until they reach an isolated farmstead occupied by part-time preacher George (Ben Browder), his religiously obsessed wife Ada (Teri Polo) and their two teenage daughters, Florence (Francesca Eastwood) and Charlotte (Madisen Beaty).

After taking the family hostage at gunpoint, the gang members settle in, appropriating their reluctant hosts’ dinner and developing an avid interest in the women, all to George’s complete horror, as family transgressions of disturbing proportions begin trickling out during the escalating conflict. His protests quickly earn him a beating, but Henry relents slightly when youngest daughter Florence seems to reciprocate his interest. It’s a tenuous truce, however, leaving George uncertain whether his family will survive the night.

From the outset, Mollner demonstrates a penchant for graphic violence, as a young woman gets her face blown off after she’s caught in the crossfire during the gang’s bank robbery. This attention-grabbing opening leads to a succession of scenes featuring bloody beatdowns and vengeful shootings that Mollner often films in close proximity to the victims, as streams of blood vigorously erupt, artistically spattering assailants.

Devotees of the genre will recognize the film’s spaghetti Westerns narrative and stylistic tropes, with their emphasis on ruthless outsiders and zero-sum social conflict. Mollner clearly aspires to comparisons with originator Sergio Leone and uber-devotee Quentin Tarantino, and the references are not misplaced. Outlaws and Angels bears more than a passing resemblance to The Hateful Eight and period companion piece Django Unchained, particularly in its fascination with operatic-scale bloodletting and colorful, surprisingly articulate (or at least highly talkative) characters.

Mollner’s script represents a fair facsimile of its progenitors, although once the bandits occupy George’s ranch, escape tactics give way to interpersonal stratagems and drawn-out bickering. Before they arrive, however, the wide-open New Mexico terrain that the outlaws traverse as they flee provides ample opportunity for Mollner and DP Matthew Irving to indulge in the types of long-lens zooms, disorienting racking-focus perspective shifts and neck-cracking whip pans that characterize the original films of the '60s and '70s, enhanced further by the filmmakers’ choice of Kodachrome-palette motion picture film and period Panavision camera equipment.

And if those signifiers weren’t obvious enough, Mollner casts Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca opposite Murray’s lead, which turns out to be a savvy choice. Eastwood imbues Florence, the most disempowered member of the family, with steely tenacity, incisive wit and no shortage of unpredictable cunning to extricate herself from her treacherous circumstances. As the outlaw leader, Murray has plenty of screen time but reveals little below the surface of a character overburdened with archetypal import.

Wilson plays bounty hunter Josiah (who supposedly dispatches his quarry with a double-headed ax) with an incongruous reserve that lacks either adequate irony or sufficient gravitas to contextualize his motivations. Altogether they’re an unsavory bunch, but for all the period detail, no less recognizable than the lowlifes of contemporary crime dramas.

Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Production companies: VMI Worldwide, No Remake Pictures, Redwire Pictures, New Golden Age Films
Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Francesca Eastwood, Madisen Beaty, Ben Browder, Frances Fisher, Keith Loneker, Luke Wilson, Teri Polo
Director-writer: JT Mollner
Producers: Luke Daniels, Rosanne Korenberg, Chris Ivan Cevic, JT Mollner
Executive producers: Dan Ivancevic, Marie Ivancevic, Michael Milton, Brandon K. Hogan, Alan Pao, Jeff Rice, Alex Vayshelboym, Alex Cutler, Scott Adler, Greg Scott, Dana Guerin
Director of photography: Matthew Irving
Production designer: David Baca
Costume designer: Liz Pecos
Editor: Christopher Robin Bell
Music: Colin Stetson
Casting director: Chadwick Struck

Rated R, 120 minutes