SXSW 2017: THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN Is A New Classic Western

The “right hand man” is a classic archetype in literature and storytelling.

Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) is a right hand man, through and through. He’s ridden with with Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) for some 40 years now. But when he’s forced to take the lead after Johnson is murdered, Lefty’s true mettle must be proven.

In all the years of right hand man archetypes, rarely has the “student becoming the master” been so satisfyingly or deftly explored or realized as it is here.

I don’t want to overhype Lefty Brown, because it’s an intimate film which would feel small in scale if not for the gigantic Montana landscape looming over the characters in every frame. But sometimes the world just needs a brand new western to remind it that the western will never die, and Lefty Brown is here to perform that duty.

Writer/Director Jared Moshe displays incredible talent with this, only his second feature film. Assembling a stellar cast of faces you know, even if you may not know their names, Moshe directs his ensemble to wonderful performances across the board, takes full advantage of the Montana landscape against which they shot, and executes a wonderfully escalating script which never once allows you to question Lefty’s loyalty, but does make you question his capability.

Bill Pullman imbues Lefty Brown with a kindly spirit and a slower-than-average mind which endears you to the character instantly. Fonda exits with a bullet within just a few minutes of the film’s opening, but he makes a huge impression and his shadow looms over the rest of the film. It’s a crucial role showing Johnson to be an honorable (nay great) man, who treasures his friendship with Lefty even as he is about to head to Washington to begin a career in politics and leave Lefty behind to manage the ranch. With the loss of Eddie Johnson, Lefty can no longer be a right hand man, and must find himself at 65 years of age.

I personally love that setup, and the brotherhood shared between these friends is reminiscent of fellow modern western classic Appaloosa. But while the setup is great, I found myself hoping desperately that the payoff would measure up. And it certainly does. Top notch character actor Tommy Flanagan shows up, as well as Jim Caviezel. The four of these men rode together for many years and each seem to look back fondly on those times. Several of them have even become the subject of dime novel pulp lore. In an element of the story that’s oddly reminiscent of Logan and the presence of X-Men comics within that story, our characters in Lefty Brown are the living embodiments of their more dramatic and sensational (and uplifting) pulp novel counterparts. This element isn’t at the forefront of the narrative here, but it’s quite fascinating nonetheless. Across the board, however, regardless of novelization or reality, everyone seems to look down on and underestimate Lefty. Ceaseless loyalty is a value not highly looked upon in the rugged west, it seems. As an audience, however, we’re instantly bonded to Lefty and rooting for him every step of the way as he peels back the mystery behind Johnson’s death, tracks down those responsible, and saves a few lives along the way. Lefty’s character, which has led him to his right hand man identity, has also largely kept his name out of the dime store novels and folk songs. Everyone’s underestimation of Lefty will provide him the upper hand, however, and as the title suggests, it is this adventure unfolding which will become the ballad of Lefty Brown.

With an interesting set up, a hugely compelling performance from Pullman as a well rounded character, beautiful cinematography, a strong ensemble cast, and a screenplay that knows its roots and represents the genre with honor, The Ballad Of Lefty Brown will be a modern western classic worth revisiting often.

And I’m Out.

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