The Ballad of Lefty Brown tells a story as old as cinema itself, burying its entertaining tale in a complicated tangle of plot and genre tropes.
A modern adaptation of the classic Western thriller, The Ballad of Lefty Brown adopts such standard tropes as betrayal and double-crosses, youthful brazenness versus the learned wisdom of the aged and the freedom of wide open spaces–themes that have been genre staples since the ‘30s/ Yet writer-director Jared Moshe capably exploits the more liberal and cynical sensibilities of 2017 to imbue a darker, more menacing mood that neither objectifies Native Americans nor elevates whiteness. The result is an exciting, gorgeous underdog story of redemption and revenge.
The film begins with a title card quoting historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who in 1893 posited the Frontier Thesis: that the US, both culturally and politically as a democracy, was forged by the process of advancing the frontier westward. The intrepid advancement of “civilization” across the rugged and unforgiving wilderness of the US West cultivated a society of rights-claiming, economy-forging and votes-casting individuals.
Moshe delights in playing around with Turner’s now-largely-discredited thesis, much like other works such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man have. The conspiracy driving the plot forward here centers on Montana’s impending statehood in 1889—in other words, its official transition from a frontier community to a stable and civilized part of the world—and the debate over the necessity of modernization for this imminent new age of stability. It poses basic questions about the divide between civilization and frontier and challenges the assumptions about progress and goodness that support Turner’s ideas.
Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) is a stammering, limp-walking and illiterate cowboy who’s carved a comfortable living from the Rocky Mountain front for decades along with his three comrades, Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan) and Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel). Each of these men has moved on to higher-status positions—a Senator, a US Marshall and the inaugural Governor of Montana, respectively—but Lefty’s ambitions have never ventured beyond the simple ranching life.
Unfortunately, before he can take his new post in Washington, Edward is killed by a horse-thieving bandit. Lefty chases after the killer seeking simple revenge but unwittingly becomes embroiled in a complex web of criminal scheming. He must prevail against overwhelming obstacles and confusing twists to unearth the truth and exact vengeance.
The layered plot features several familiar Western themes. There is a hotshot teenager who quickly dives in over his head, a blunder-filled shoot-out, desperate horseback treks racing against time and such genre staples as nooses, whiskey, cattle-brands and rattlesnakes. The film is never over-stuffed with such tropes, but it can be too on-the nose, which keeps it from the level of more sui generis all-timers like Unforgiven, but does not make it any less entertaining.
The movie hits all the notes on craft. David McFarland’s wondrous cinematography uses sweeping mountain panoramas that nicely frame the empty, sunny expanses as well as also intimate shots that capture dark and claustrophobic interiors. The props and costumes are meticulously made and generate period authenticity, the sound editing and design are also just right and the editing keeps the pace consistently quick throughout.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown tells a story as old as cinema itself, burying its entertaining tale in a complicated tangle of plot and genre tropes. When the gun smoke clears to allow the credits to roll, the narrative’s conclusion comes across as satisfying and complete. It goes down smoother than the rot-gut whiskey its characters so heartily gulp.