Jared Moshe’s decidedly non-revisionist, old-fashioned western The Ballad of Lefty Brown centers on the kind of character Walter Brennan used to play in his sleep: the good-natured codger who rides with the heroic cowboys if only to provide a moral (and sometimes literal) compass and crack the occasional fogeyish joke. For all his talents, Brennan was almost always in a supporting role, but Bill Pullman, modeling his Lefty Brown off the smiley old bit player in look, gesture, and vocal cadence, gets front billing in Moshe’s film.
That said, Moshe hasn’t injected the archetype with any additional complexity to accommodate the promotion. This is a film about a guy who self-identifies as having “never got anything right in over 60-odd years” but nonetheless represents a model of integrity and kindness at every turn, an impeccable standing that’s juxtaposed against the greed, brutality, and cowardice that otherwise seems to embody every square foot of the Old West.
The film’s plot kicks in with the cold-blooded murder of Lefty’s longtime confidante, Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), a Montana lawman who ostensibly built his legend on the right side of justice. The killing sends a ripple of grief throughout the small community he worked in, which is nowhere more apparent than on the face of the great Kathy Baker, who stars as Edward’s widow, Laura. Others don’t seem so authentic in their trauma, and in general Moshe and editor Terel Gibson are a bit too reliant on reaction shots and line deliveries that telegraph duplicity and subterranean motives.
Neither Lefty nor Laura’s instincts are very sharp regarding the murderous culprit, making the plot something of a slow, plodding spin around the drain. While Lefty, alcoholic sidekick Tom (Tommy Flanagan), and eager upstart Jeremiah (Diego Josef) start scouring the plains for clues about their friend’s death, there’s little to lead us to believe that any of their revelations will be surprising, since every rogue they come across appears equally capable of mercilessly gunning down whoever steps foot in their territory.
That dubious political gamesmanship ends up accounting for Edward’s offing, and that Lefty gets framed for the crime feels par for the course. Though Moshe’s appreciatively framed vistas evoke the genre’s classical era, the primary model for The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a particular strand of postwar western. There’s a bit of Samuel Fuller or Anthony Mann in the film’s leftist cynicism and snapshot of everyday villainy, albeit with none of Fuller’s jagged violence or Mann’s intelligent muddying of righteousness and corruption.
Moshe stages the obligatory hostage beating and a few short-lived shootouts, but any sense of real violent anarchy is cut short by the reminder that Lefty’s folksy virtuousness will prevail against the unprincipled majority. “Money…it makes fools of men,” grumbles Lefty to his admiring apprentice Jeremiah in one of many scenes designed to espouse the hero’s (and the film’s) worldview, and when the most contemptible personification of this truism—Jim Caviezel’s silver-tongued elected official Jimmy Bierce—is framed against an American flag in a climactic scene, the implication lands with a soft thud. Tying insatiable greed to the national character through such “subtle” visual means is hardly a trenchant move in this day and age.
There’s something a bit refreshing about a genre film that doesn’t bother to manufacture psychological depth by placing its hero in morally jeopardizing situations. For what it’s worth, Moshe seems genuinely interested in the role of unflagging decency in a sullied world. But goodness is hardly very genuine when it needs to be underlined constantly. Moreover, as westerns seem to only exist today with asterisks attached (“It’s actually a horror film,” for example), The Ballad of Left Brown’s insistence on playing it straight should in theory also be a nice change of pace. Instead, it feels lazily regressive.