Tyro writer-helmer James Crowley’s West Texas-shot “The Journeyman” is a refreshingly traditional Western, albeit one that never quite locates a distinct tone between elements of straightforward action, psychological drama and Sergio Leone/Monte Hellman-style frontier fatalism. Slickly handled package is nonetheless a diverting throwback, mercifully void of the MTV-generation pandering that’s marred most recent oater efforts. Genre’s current, moribund commercial status and lack of B.O. names signal home formats as likeliest path to wider exposure, though theatrical release on a limited, regional basis is possible.
Prologue finds a rancher’s (Willie Nelson, dead before the opening credits) two young sons orphaned and separated after attack by roaming outlaws. Thirteen years later, the one who’d been kidnapped (Brad Hunt) is a cold-blooded, black-hatted killer numbed by harsh experience and morphine addiction. Brother left behind (Daniel Lapaine) is a now a likewise noncommunicative if vaguely saintly loner who hopes to find and redeem his “demonic” sib.
Soon many others are on Hunt’s trail as well, after a botched payroll-office robbery leaves him hunted by a fractious vigilante posse, the sidekick (Dash Mihok) he’d abandoned, lone survivor (Assumpta Serna) of traveling bordello he’s senselessly decimated, and more.
Along lines of ’60s Spaghetti Westerns, fraternal lead characters aren’t given Christian names. Iconic good/bad brother conflict would have worked better if their relationship were made clearer — Lapaine’s personal stake remains murky for too long — and if Hunt’s brutal flashback-illustrated backstory was either more vivid or simply left blank.
Given mysterioso Cain-and-Abel conceit, attempts at psychological depth come off half-hearted and gratuitous, especially since pic otherwise has little room for introspection.
Supporting character scroll is a bit overcrowded within headlong-action context, with some figures (like Serna) not given enough screen time to justify inclusion, while others are entertaining but could use more breathing space. Trigger-happy recklessness of population in this late 19th century mining milieu is a source of considerable vinegary humor, with Mihok’s aggrieved doofus particularly funny.
While script’s mythic dimensions might have benefited from more leisurely, weighted execution, “The Journeyman” does handle its frequent shootouts and stuntwork in expert fashion.
Perfs are solid, period design elements nicely turned on a modest scale. Rohn Schmidt’s ambered color photography is impressive, and Graham Reynolds’ original score — which draws on the full range of Western soundtrack conventions — is especially rich and inventive. Brief Spanish-dialogue passages are English-subtitled.
Shot in 35, pic was screened at S.F. IndieFest in projected DVD.