There’s slightly more than a touch of irony in Bill Pullman’s role in this Old West caper. Ever the likeable supporting actor, taking a backseat role to let the bigger stars play hero, he now stars as a man who’s played sidekick for the last 40 years, only to be thrust into the hero role when circumstances force him to. In The Ballad of Lefty Brown, Pullman stars as the titular character who sets out on a path of revenge after his partner Edward Johnson, a well-liked rancher and newly-elected senator, is shot dead ten minutes into the film. Along the way, he meets a young wannabe gunslinger named Jeremiah, who idolises Johnson and his posse.
Lefty Brown is an interesting character. He is nothing like your old fashioned Western hero, with his gruff voice and deadly gaze with a toothpick in his mouth. He’s an incompetent, goofy old man, carried through life through the loyalty of his friend, as he was to him. If the movie had gone a step further it could easily veer into parody territory with this character, but director Jared Moshe managed to turn the Western hero concept on its head to great effect. What we get instead is a sympathetic protagonist to latch on to, as the film breaks away from the tough-guy shell of traditional heroes and puts a vulnerable lead in the limelight.
Of course, this wouldn’t work without the lead actor carrying the load. Fortunately, here we have Pullman, a man well known for playing iconic characters in iconic films, giving the performance of his career. He creates a balance of the character’s quirky nature with a restrained, emotional undercurrent. This combination fuels what could’ve been a deep and heartfelt journey exploring themes of loyalty and friendship, through the eyes of a likeable underdog.
The problem with the film is it doesn’t stick with this direction. As the film progresses, and it starts taking certain twists and turns, it also begins to stop being about the character of Lefty Brown and starts approaching generic Western action-thriller territory. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some fun to be had in that as well, but it’s difficult not to feel short-changed as the shift happens. There’s not enough thrills and excitement to carry the action-thriller side of proceedings, and the shift gets in the way of a truly satisfying end for Lefty’s emotional journey.
The shift itself isn’t abrupt in any way, you could even see seeds of it planted early in the film, but once you’re fully on board the intriguing character journey, it doesn’t make for a smooth meshing of ideas. And it doesn’t help that the film decide to take turns that, not only distract from the heavier themes of the film, but are also rather predictable and unnecessary.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown has Bill Pullman’s pitch-perfect performance to thank for carrying most of the movie on its back, as what could have been a deeply emotional character study set in a Western backdrop, or a fun action revenge film attempts to be both and falls short of becoming either.