The western has supposedly died a few times now, but it keeps managing to spring back to life. Director/writer Jared Moshe is part of a new wave of filmmakers finding something fresh to say in an old form. After playing in the genre in 2012 with Dead Man’s Burden, he’s back again for The Ballad of Lefty Brown, an absorbing period thriller that turns the role of the hero upside down.

That’s because the title character, played by Bill Pullman, is not a man accustomed to the limelight. Lefty, a shambling, limping, semi-mess in his old-age, has only ever been a sidekick. A loyal and steadfast one yes, but never the central figure. Decades have been spent following in the footsteps of Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda), writing a thousand stories in the process. But the times they are a changing, and Johnson is now moving to Washington after being elected Senator for Montana.

Lefty is meant to stay behind and oversee the range, an appointment Johnson’s weary wife Laura (Kathy Baker) sees for the disaster it will probably be. It’s soon irrelevant when Johnson is killed and Lefty sets out to track the murderer and clear his own name, all while struggling out from under a dense cloud of confusion.

Moshe plays brilliantly with the idea of the hero, using Lefty to examine the difference between stories told and real lives lived. Meeting a young kid along the way – one of the few weaker points as Diego Josef’s Jeremiah occasionally becomes a transparent cipher to speed along plot and character development – Lefty finds him an avid fan of Johnson’s adventures. The tales have been warped to make for better copy, with Lefty himself written out. He’s a supporting act, propping others up. Without his lifelong partner, he simply heads into the wilderness finding new people to back up along the way.

Around Lefty’s particular mission, Moshe weaves in the classic western theme of progress. The railroad is coming and Jim Caviezel’s Governor sees the value while Johnson did not. Their disagreement is teased out gradually, highlighting the value men like Johnson, Lefty, and Tommy Flanagan’s Marshall bring to taming the West, while also casting them as anachronisms. The Governor is a villain of sorts by setting himself up in opposition to the heroes, but he’s no cold-hearted, raving lunatic. He used to ride with them after all, and he seems to want what’s best, recognising the old ways aren’t going to deliver it.

While all of this unfolds, and Pullman captivates as he sends a stumbling, battered Lefty through a series of near-death experiences, Moshe takes time never to rush. The camera pulls back to find a number of extraordinary shots. The sky explodes into a whole palette of colours while mountains creep off into the distance and riders stand out against the ridge at the black of night. Moshe uses fades between shots to avoid pushing forward too quickly, allowing time for unsullied nature to seep in.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a delightful surprise, sticking within the overall western framework while managing to find a new story to tell. Only occasionally does the film lose its organic feel to reveal inner workings. The rest of the time, anchored by a superb lead performance, Moshe provides an interesting story told from a fascinating angle. The western lives on yet.

Director: Jared Moshe
Writers: Jared Moshe, Jared Moshe
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Pullman
Runtime: 111 mins
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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