Over the last couple of years there has been a minor resurgence in the Western genre. Previously it was high profile, big budget films like Unforgiven or Dances With Wolves apparently heralded the dawn of a new age of tales of the west. When it didn’t come to anything despite some valiant attempts, the western looked as dead as before. Now, with smaller scale productions and some real talent on both sides of the camera it is looking a little more promising. The latest film to make an appearance is The Ballad Of Lefty Brown.
It is the last days of the old West. Civilisation is creeping into the places which were known as the frontier. It requires a different way of thinking and new attitudes. Part of this change is local representation at the highest level of government. Edward Johnston (Peter Fonda) and Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) have been partners for decades. Edward is leaving law enforcement to take up a position as a senator. When Lefty witnesses his partners murder he sets out to find the men responsible. What he stumbles upon is more than he can imagine.
The film harks back to the revisionist westerns of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Here the West is full of corruption and hardship. There is very little comfort to be had and the film doesn’t shy away from addressing this. The greed of man is at the fore. Violence is the first, and only, answer to any problem.
Lefty Brown is a simple man. He isn’t a great thinker and has a limited capacity for thought. To some he would seem slow of mind but it isn’t something that troubles him. When Edward offers him the farm to look after once he is gone, Lefty is reluctant as he understands his capabilities and His strengths are also the main themes of the film. To him, loyalty and respect are everything. He surrounds himself with people he trusts and would give his life for.
Bill Pullman gives a quite superb performance in the title role. To begin with you think he is going for the idiot side kick vibe but it soon becomes clear that this is just what he is like in the heat of a gun battle. In quieter moments he is more reserved. It is a subtle take on a character that could easily have been much larger than life and still be entertaining. It would have changed the tone of the film though. With the sombre mood that the film is trying to achieve it feels like the right move on Pullman’s part.
As well as the strong story, the film makes the best use of its location. The wide open plains and the backdrop of the hills and mountains are stunning. They call back to the vistas from the classic John Ford westerns. As well as being impressive they also let the audience know that whatever else is happening it is on such a small scale compared to the country it is set in.