Ever go into a movie hoping to like it? Last Sunday at our Western Night at the Movies get-together, we watched THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN. The concept is an intriguing one in which the sidekick becomes the hero out to avenge the death of his friend while also trying to solve the mystery surrounding his killing. Imagine John Wayne’s John T. Chance in RIO BRAVO being dry gulched and Walter Brennan’s character Stumpy going after the murderers. There are possibilities there, particularly with Stumpy being such an ornery cuss, as well as having demonstrated a certain resourcefulness. His showing up at the big climactic shootout toting sticks of dynamite came in real handy.
Set in 1889, LEFTY BROWN opens promisingly in a rainstorm with a vicious malcontent captured and hanged on the spot by Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) and Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman). Johnson, we discover, is the newly elected U.S. Senator of Montana. Lefty, shambling and quirky, tells Edward it’s “a helluva way to start your career.”
Shortly, things go awry, not only for Lefty, but the film, as well. Ed and Lefty ride out searching for a cattle rustler. Ed hands his rifle to Lefty, telling him he has much faith in him to run his ranch while he’s away in Washington, when a shot is heard. Lefty falls from his saddle and strikes the ground, blood on his cheek. He glances up and sees Ed, another rifle now in his hands, suddenly get his brains blown out. But Lefty isn’t hit. We don’t know where the blood on his face came from, nor do we find out. Was Ed struck by that first shot? And where did the second rifle come from? It’s a confusing moment. Sadly, others follow. While there are some good moments, the poorly handled ones tend to overshadow them.
Jared Moshe, who wrote and directed the film, does have an appreciation for the Western genre, but the political corruption at the heart of his plot, combined with several significant revelatory details left unanswered, derail the story. It’s unfortunate, too, because the Montana location landscapes are a sumptuous feast, thanks to cinematographer David McFarland.
I really wanted to like this movie.
In attendance at our Western Night were Johnny D. Boggs, seven time Spur-winning author, David Morrell, award-winning author and New York Times best-selling author of FIRST BLOOD, and Robert Nott, award-winning journalist and author of biographies about Western icons Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, as well as co-authoring a memoir about Sam Peckinpah with Max Evans. Kirk Ellis, Emmy-winning writer and producer of JOHN ADAMS and INTO THE WEST, was away.