Never Grow Old **** 2019

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We’ve seen this character in Westerns before; from Sergio Leone to Carry On Cowboy; the small-town mortician scuttles in the shadows between the buildings, following in the wake of a violent protagonist as he shoots his way to grim justice. Often played for laughs, the undertaker is usually a bit-part player; Ivan Kavanagh’s violent thriller puts him centre stage in a strong, involving story about morality and money.

A flash-forward shows Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) entering a church, shotgun in hand. It’s an image that hangs heavily over the rest of the film, as the story uncoils to reveal his deadly motivations. Tate lives and works in the small frontier town of Garlow, populated by right-thinking, sweet-natured religious people until Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his gang arrive. They bring booze, and recruit child-prostitutes for a local brothel, and dish out death to those who stand in their way. For Tate, it’s a moral quandary, but also a business proposition; after all, he has a young wife (Déborah François) and hungry children to feed…

Never Grow Old has a timeless story, but also one that feels intensely relevant in 2019. Dutch Albert promises a better life, or at least a more moneyed existence, but at a high cost. Tate has the option of keeping his head down and not acknowledging where the cash is coming from, but it’s inevitable that his supping with the devil will lead him to the moral awakening of the final confrontation. Faith in capitalism is one thing, but it doesn’t allow entrepreneurs to operate in a moral vacuum. Kavanaugh’s story is suitably elliptical that it doesn’t have a specific political meaning, but all comers can take something away from the picture of a world where the good guys are hamstrung by trying to do the right thing while the bad guys run roughshod over the rules.

What makes Never Grow Old really worth switching your phone off for is the acting; Cusack has travelled some distance from his pretty-boy rom-com image, and he adds a personal best performance amongst the gallery of villains he’s played. Dutch has a touch of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, volatile, off-key, oozing menace behind a blank stare. He’s well-matched by Hirsch, also a teen idol who has conjured up the grit required to gravitate to bigger things; his good looks work against his character’s moral weakness, making something complex of Tate; Hirsch’s Jay Sebring in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood brought him back to public notice, but Never Grow Old shows he’s still a first-rate lead. François also deserves credit for taking a familiar character and giving her a hard, sympathetic edge as she begs her husband to recognise that the source of their good fortune is also their undoing.

Shot in Luxembourg and Ireland, Never Grow Old is a handsome, well-mounted Western in the old-tradition; it’s the kind of film that might have genre fans standing in supermarkets examining the case, wondering if this is any good; it is good, the kind of tough, thoughtful film that’s increasingly hard to find but easy to recommend.

NEVER GROW OLD is released on DVD 23rd September 2019 from Altitude Films

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The Sisters Brothers 2017 ****

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Even given the lack of public appetite for Westerns, the complete disappearance of Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers at the box-office demonstrated a notable and regrettable gap between quality and appreciation; this is an entertaining, mainstream film that almost nobody saw. Audiard’s A Prophet was such a breakthrough movie that his English –language debut was certain to draw top talent; based on a novel by Patrick deWitt, Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly play Charlie and Eli Sisters, two assassins on the trail of gold in the U.S. circa 1851. Rogue One’s Riz Ahmed plays Warm, a man who has created a formula which, added to bodies of water with gold ore nearby, turns bright green; a licence to print money if carefully applied, but care is short in these territories. There’s a notable taste of Old West harshness when Charlie swallows a spider and the venom causes him some distress; the world is a dangerous place in Audiard’s world view, and survival is as much as a man might hope to gain. The Sisters Brothers is violent, bleakly funny, spikey and evokes the best of Sergio Leone; Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, Alison Tolman and Carol Kane round out an accomplished cast. Perhaps The Sisters Brothers was too rich for audiences; an audience watching at home would do well to put their phones away and immerse themselves in this epic, original story of greed and grizzly bears.

The Outsider 2019 ****

Despite the best efforts of Quentin Tarantino and Westworld, the Western hasn’t quite been revived as a genre, but there seems to be a strain of tough, adult fare developing from Bone Tomahawk onwards. Director Timothy Woodward Jr seems to be a fan of the form, with a Bill Hickok biopic amongst his many recent credits, and The Outsider is a more than decent entry in the Western stakes, shot at the old Paramount Ranch.  John Foo plays Jing Phang, a railroad-worker who not surprisingly struggles to find social equality in the Old West. When the increasingly unhinged James Walker (Kaiwi Lyman), son of lawman Marshall Walker (singer Trace Adkins ) takes an unpleasant shine to Phang’s wife, Phang is unable to prevent her from falling into his clutches , and revenge ensues. The Outsider’s plotline makes it sound like an eye-for-an-eye Charles Bronson movie, but Sean Ryan’s script is considerably more complex and thoughtful than might be expected, and follows a number of factions in the town while Phang is on the run. If the climax doubles down on melodrama in a frustratingly conventional way, The Outsider scores points as a well-mounted, traditional Western that should please anyone looking for a fix of old-school moral justice.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-outsider/id1460596870

Slow West 2015 ***

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John Maclean’s debut film is an offbeat Western which features the star of his BAFTA-winning short, Pitch Black Heist, Michael Fassbender. Kodi-Smidt-McPhee plays a young Scotsman befriended by Fassbinder’s gruff stranger who a cross -ountry trek to find a lost sweetheart. Ben Mendelsohn makes a suitable adversary, but Slow West never conforms to genre expectations, feeling more like a road movie with horses, and with sudden, shocking violence in the vein of Dead Man. The sight of a washing line hung between the men’s horses as they ride sets a whimsical tone that’s laced with dark humour. Slow West has echoes of The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit; a semi-mythical West, unexpected in its simplicity, deadly in outlook.

The Salvation 2014 ***

134f5-salvatation-poster-2-copy-copyIf you only see one Western featuring Eric Cantona, Douglas Henshaw, Mads Mikklelsen, and Eva Green as a murderous mute, The Salvation is likely to be the answer to your prayers. Mikklelsen plays a man who revenges his family’s killer, only to find himself alone in his battle against a larger, better equipped villain.  Kristain Levring’s western has a welcome dash of Leone, but has its own violent, remorseless energy, with Green magnetic as always amid plenty of quirky, offbeat incident.