Not unlike “The Hateful Eight,” “Outlaws & Angels” is a Grand Guignol nod to spaghetti Westerns that soon abandons the great outdoors for one equally bloody interior location. But JT Mollner’s debut feature has its own distinctive plot arc and constant excesses, making for an assertively nasty frontier morality tale likely to win some cult admiration while repelling anyone looking for the return of wholesome Randolph Scott-type oaters. In contrast with “Eight,” the absence of marquee names behind and before the camera will make this strictly a niche commercial gamble; Momentum plans a summer U.S. release, with several European territories also sold.
A horrifically abrupt ending to two young women’s main-street promenade alerts 1887 Cuchillo, N.M., too late that its bank is being robbed. The related death of a government official further ensures a posse will be hot on the trail of the five masked outlaws, one of whom is shot as they gallop away. Another dies during the arduous travel though desert terrain that does not succeed in shaking bounty hunter Josiah (Luke Wilson) and his second-in-command, Alonzo (Steven Michael Quezada), off their trail. That leaves just rotund dimwit Little Joe (Keith Loneker), bloodthirsty Charlie (Nathan Russell) and their leader, no-nonsense Henry (Chad Michael Murray), as three thirsty, hungry fugitives who invade the Tildon clan’s isolated farmhouse.
We’ve already seen that this is not a happy family. Wild-eyed Ada (Teri Polo) is a religious fanatic, while eldest daughter Charlotte (Madisen Beaty) bullies 15-year-old Florence (Francesca Eastwood), who loathes her in return. Tipplesome patriarch George (Ben Browder) requires nightly “rubdowns” from his womenfolk that we correctly guess are not innocent in nature. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of this little incestuous prairie cesspool strike postures as upstanding Christian folk in trying to fend off abuse from their loutish uninvited guests. An exception is the sass-mouthed Flo, whom Henry takes a shine to, and vice versa. With her loyalties increasingly unreliable, it does not look to be a pleasant night for the other Tildons, whose hypocrisies are soon exposed for the armed intruders to gawk at.
For a while in the middle, Mollner’s film looks like the particular envelope it will be pushing is one usually sidelined or ignored in Westerns: sex. So much so that for a reel or so it seems edging toward a softcore revisit of something iike 1975’s self-explanatory XXX feature “A Dirty Western,” whose more graphic rapey titillation also involved three outlaws invading a house of women. This emphasis eventually recedes, but it lingers long enough that some viewers may feel a line has been crossed.
Periodic cutaways to a somewhat miscast Wilson and his character’s voiceover philosophical musings provide tonal variety, if little else, to the film’s otherwise effectively tense and macabre progress, which is entirely confined (until a final section) to the rustic family home. One character’s evolution from resentful youth to full-on femme fatale requires considerable suspension of disbelief. But then “Outlaws & Angels” trades in the lurid character psychology and crude ironies of the spaghetti Western — an idiom whose cynical worst-case-scenario view of humanity seems more acceptable to modern audiences than the good-shall-triumph faith of the traditional Hollywood western.
The film stays faithful to that form on aesthetic levels, too, from the plentiful blood spurts to the imposing compositions, color palette, zoom-lensing and grainy 35mm stock of Matthew Irving’s widescreen cinematography. Performances are seldom subtle yet effective and credible, abetted by flavorful dialogue whose archaic turns of phrase and evergreen expletives alike have the tang of careful period research; the costume and production design contributions also have an authentic feel. The soundtrack pays homage to genre greats like Morricone while also providing less predictable accompaniment, including deliberately incongruous use of some familiar classical themes.