As the man himself would be the first to tell you, Lefty Brown is not the kind of guy ballads are written about. Folksy and eccentric, prone to talking to himself, this self-abnegating old-timer is the eternal sidekick, the hero’s reliable right hand and nothing more.
But, as its title indicates, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” delights in flipping the script. Written and directed by Jared Moshe and featuring the always welcome Bill Pullman in a front and center role, this is a satisfying indie western, a dark and brooding film made with both a modern touch and real love for the genre.
A lot of situations and individuals are familiar here, as are venerable lines of dialogue like “you’ve got a bullet in you that’s going to have to come out.” “Ballad” makes them feel fresh because, helped by excellent acting by Pullman and co-stars Kathy Baker, Jim Caviezel and Tommy Flanagan, it views them with an idiosyncratic, character-driven eye.
An elegiac, end-of-an-era western that echoes films like “Unforgiven” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” “Ballad” presents Montana circa 1889 as a place of sudden and disturbing violence.
The rule of law is having a tough time supplanting old-style vigilante justice, and characters are dealing with what one calls “the tragedy of changing times.”
The film also, and this is important, does a fine job of physically presenting the West in general and Montana specifically. Shot on film in the state by cinematographer David McFarland, “Ballad” is in love with the grandeur of the frontier landscape, and its beautiful images enable us to share those feelings.
After opening with a quote from celebrated historian of the West Frederick Jackson Turner about the need for men to adapt to the harsh reality of the frontier, “Ballad” focuses on two individuals, ramrod straight Edward Johnson and the titular Brown, limping from an old gunfight injury, as they go about their vigilante business.
As played by 77-year-old Peter Fonda, who clearly relishes being in western gear one more time, Johnson is not just the classic alpha male; he is Montana’s newly elected Senator and about to go to Washington, D.C., with his wife, Laura.
Expertly played through a wide range of emotions by Baker, the strong, independent Laura is worried about her husband’s plan to leave Lefty in charge of their ranch. Yes, she admits, he is loyal but adds tartly, “loyal isn’t the same as capable.”
It’s easy to see why Laura is worried. If Fonda’s Johnson has echoes of John Wayne, Lefty in Pullman’s bravura but nuanced performance channels the squeaky hemming and hawing voice of Andy Devine, the hapless sheriff in “Liberty Valence.”
The two men have been close for 40 years, but it all ends in an instant when Edward is shot out of the saddle while the pair are out tracking down rustlers. Lefty feels responsible, though he isn’t, and heads out vowing revenge on those who did the deed.
That death brings two other individuals to the ranch, men who were Edward and Lefty’s boon companions back in the day. One, Tom Harrah (Flanagan) is currently a U.S. Marshall, while the other, Jimmy Bierce, (Caviezel), is now the state’s governor.
Dismissive of Lefty’s abilities and worried about his safety, Harrah sets out to end his mission, but that proves easier said than done.
For his part, Lefty comes across a greenhorn kid named Jeremiah (Diego Josef) who fancies himself a gunfighter and has dreams of fighting evil like the dime novel heroes he read about as a youngster.
And though Lefty grumbles he has “no time to babysit,” he softheartedly allows the kid tag along on his quest.
The killer in question, a stone cold psychopath named Frank (Joe Anderson) proves not hard to find, but that is just the beginning of the story for these men and their bloody, violent quest for what they like to think of as simple justice.
What that kind of a journey was like back in the day no one alive can now tell us, but “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” wants us to sense a reality behind the myth-making, the dime novels and the legends, and sense it we do.
‘The Ballad of Lefty Brown’
Rating: R, for violence and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release