Director/Screenwriter: Jared Moshe
Length: 111 minutes
Cast: Bill Pullman, Kathy Baker, Jim Caviezel, Tommy Flanagan, Peter Fonda, Joe Anderson, Diego Josef, Michael Spears, Lewis Pullman, Joseph Anderson
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
Bill Pullman has been acting for 30 years and co-owns a cattle ranch in Montana with his brother near Whitehall, Montana. The opportunity to star as Lefty Brown, the lead in the western “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” set in Montana (which premiered at SXSW on Friday, March 10), was a rare confluence of star and role intersecting.
Lefty is a 63-year-old cowboy. Pullman is a 63-year-old actor. Pullman told Pete Hammond of Deadline Hollywood: “I am doing a story about an old codger and most of the people I know in Montana are old codgers, so I even roped some of them into being extras.”
Pullman called Jared Moshe’s second directorial effort “a perfect storm” of coincidence and told interviewers that he lived (part-time) only twenty minutes away from the countryside where filming took place. The wide-screen vistas of Montana country are beautiful, indeed, especially when captured on Kodak film. The use of film was much remarked upon by the participants in the film, and the great cinematography by David McFarland reminds of old westerns. Director Moshe said, after the showing of the film, “You need real film in westerns to get the feel, the grain.” The sound was also wonderful.
Lefty Brown is a throwback to the days of sidekicks like Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan in classic westerns from Howard Hawks and John Ford. Lefty is a 63-year-old illiterate ranch hand who has ridden beside Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda) for 40 years. As one line spoken by Lefty put it: “I’m the man who never got anything right in over 60 odd years.”
But now Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda) and his wife Laura (Kathy Baker) are on their way to Washington, where Eddie is to be the new Senator from the state of Montana. Eddie (Fonda) has confidence in Lefty’s ability to keep the home spread running (although why is a good question.)
Mrs. Johnson, Laura, has her doubts about whether Lefty is up to the task. She shares those doubts with her husband just before the two men ride off to find out who has rustled three horses from their fields. It is not long after this that Eddie, (just as he is announcing his confidence in him to longtime friend Lefty and bestowing his treasured rifle on the old cowboy), is shot dead by a sniper, while Lefty is left in the dust.
So, you’ve got Peter Fonda for roughly ten minutes of this film. When Lefty finally rises, he has the unenviable task of taking Fonda’s body back to the ranch, draped over his horse’s saddle horn. His wife is distraught and angry.
Lefty vows to get revenge for the killing of his boss and friend, but “the bad guy” (Jim Caveziel as Governor James Bierce) sets Lefty up to take the fall. The tension does not ratchet up as it should in the third act. The IMDB ratings for the film from regular film-goers were in the 50-something range when last I checked. Yet “Variety” and others herald Pullman’s turn as Lefty as “his best acting in years.”
Pullman, who has been in such films as “Ruthless People,” “Spaceballs,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Independence Day” and “While You Were Sleeping,” finally got the chance to play the lead. It’s too bad the character seems like a dim-wit and the script isn’t fast-paced enough to hold the attention of today’s audience(s).
I sat next to three publicists (working on another film) at SXSW, all young pretty girls. They pulled out their cell phones moments into the The Ballad of Lefty Brown(even though this is strictly verboten), never put them down, and, ultimately, got up and left. The three seats next to me were then filled by three others in search of entry to the sold-out showing. They also got up and left before the film’s finale.
You can draw any conclusions you want from the exit of six people seated next to me before the film’s finale.
The last occupant of the seat nearest me, noticing my notepad, said, “What did you think?”
My response? “Kind of slow-moving. But pretty.”
In the Q&A following the Premiere, Writer/Director Jared Moshe said, “I wanted to know who’s this man behind the archetype,” noting that westerns are “our mythology.” The rest of the cast chimed in to laud Pullman’s role playing a man who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, saying, “It’s not one performance. It’s all of your performances. It’s all those aspects of Lefty Brown.”
I tried to remember a performance from Pullman where he seemed quite as dumb. I came up short. This slow-witted demeanor can be attributed to portraying the character as scripted. All I can tell you is that it didn’t capture the attention of 6 people sitting next to me during the premiere. I hung in there till the end, to hear the actors Q&A onstage afterwards. (One exclaimed, “We’re shooting film!” as though he had just discovered gold).
Another said, “I loved it. For me, it was an amazing experience being out in the middle of Montana.”
Pullman, himself, said, “I kind of felt they might take it (the role) away from me, but then I realized I didn’t want anyone else riding that horse.”
James Caviezel, most recently on the television series “Person of Interest,” but also memorable in “The Passion of the Christ” and “Frequency,” shared with the audience that this is the third film he has made with Bill Pullman, the other two being “The Thin Red Line,” where he portrayed Pvt. Witt, and “Wyatt Earp.” Caviezel praised Pullman’s hard-working skill as an actor, saying, “This man is special. Seamless. No seams in it. He had everything in his portrayal of Lefty—mannerisms and everything. We were shooting the climactic scene in the office late one night and I was running on empty, but Bill was right on the money. I was running on fumes. Afterwards, I went outside and threw up.”
Well, I did not go outside and throw up. I was sorry that I didn’t like the The Ballad of Lefty Brown more, because I like the actors in it and the cinematography and sound were great. It was just slow. To quote a line from the script, “Sorry don’t get it done.”