The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)
Written & Directed by Jared Moshe
Lefty Brown is a simple-minded ranchhand whose glory days are far behind him. He’s about to bid farewell to his longtime friend, Ed Johnson who has been elected senator of Montana. However, tragedy strikes and Ed will never make it to D.C. Old friends Tom Harrah and Governor Jame Bierce arrive to comfort Ed’s widow while his affairs are put in order. Lefty takes off to hunt down the killers and is joined by Tom who is trying to bring the old man back home. Instead, they pick up a young kid enamored with the mythology of the West, and whom quickly learns the stories he has heard are not as fantastic and pretty as he thinks. A conspiracy is uncovered behind Ed’s murder that connects to his election as a senator and leaves Lefty as a suspect fighting to redeem his name and avenge his friend.
There has come the point in American cinema where all Westerns are now revisionist Westerns, and further you could argue that all Westerns are revisions as the first films served to mythologize what was in actuality a brutal and turbulent time for the people who lived in these desolate regions of the country. This film’s particular take is to focus the story around a Gabby Hayes-style character. Gabby Hayes was a character famous for playing the comic relief sidekick of the hero. If you are familiar at all with the classics of the genre, then you would recognize the squint-eyed prospector’s hat wearing old feller.
Bill Pullman plays the titular Lefty and walks that line between mimicry and subtle homage. He presents a more profoundly melancholy figure who has moments of silliness but has been worn and aged by a brutal world. In the opening moments of the film, Ed Johnson and Lefty takeout a couple of men who have started shooting up a local tavern. Ed dispatches the last man, hanging him which elicits a comment from Lefty about this being the old way of doing things. Ed responds that he doesn’t want Lefty to tell his wife about it. Later, we hear about the railroad coming through which is a typical Western symbol for the coming changes in the new century. Lefty is not a self-assured figure like Ed; he consistently fails when he tries to be the leading man but not in a comical manner.
When the kid gets shot after a confrontation goes wrong, Lefty reaches in the wound to remove the bullet. If he had been a Peter Fonda, like Ed, he would grab it and extract on the first try. Instead, he fumbles and slips and causes the kid even more pain. Despite Lefty being present for so many heroic events, he is absent in the stories the kid reads. However, these stories prove painful when the kid retells the revised version of Tom and Ed’s hunting down of the Apaches who kidnapped Tom’s wife. The reality is that his wife was killed and this adventure turned out much bleaker, becoming the catalyst for Tom’s alcoholism. Director Jared Moshe hits all the expected notes of a Western revisionist film without much new added to the conversation. It’s a very smart to make the movie about the sidekick, but beyond that notion, there is not much more here.
The reveal of the conspiracy behind the death of Ed never feels surprising and is pretty much spelled out 30 minutes into the picture. After that, we don’t get much more development of the ins and outs and why someone would go to such extreme lengths. The reasons given don’t feel weighty enough for such a profound betrayal. The great character actress Kathy Baker plays Ed’s widow and is about the only interesting supporting character in the movie. I would have loved to see even more interaction between Baker and Pullman because the dynamic between their characters has the potential to give deeper layers to the revisionism concepts.