Imagine a Western in which Walter Brennan goes gunning for the varmints who bushwhacked John Wayne. That’s pretty much the logline for “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” writer-director Jared Moshé’s solidly entertaining period drama, which can be enjoyed as both a straight-shooting homage to crotchety sidekicks and shoot-’em-up conventions, and a well-crafted movie about loyalty, betrayal, and redemption that dutifully acknowledges, without slavishly mimicking, the classic oaters that introduced those sidekicks, and established those conventions. Even as Moshé respectfully tips his Stetson to a variety of cinematic forebearers — masterworks by John Ford and Howard Hawks, revisionist ’70s horse operas, Clint Eastwood’s down-and-dirty “Unforgiven” — he rides clear of wink-wink pastiche, and sets his sights on making something that can stand on its own merits as a worthy addition to the genre.
Bill Pullman gets in touch with his inner Gabby Hayes — a rather more serious Gabby Hayes, mind you, but a Gabby Hayes nonetheless — in the title role of Lefty Brown, the longtime confederate of Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda), a Wild West legend who, as the rain-soaked opening scene indicates, has been known to smudge the line between lawman and outlaw while dispensing rough justice in his corner of late-1880s Montana.
Indeed, there are subtle hints that both Eddie and his faithful sidekick haven’t always stuck to the straight-and-narrow path. But never mind: Eddie has been elected Senator from Montana, so he’s ready to hang up his guns and move to Washington, D.C. During his extended absence, he plans to place Lefty in charge of his ranch — despite the misgivings of Eddie’s wife, Laura (Kathy Baker), who doesn’t sound entirely unreasonable when she questions whether an illiterate sixtysomething galoot with no discernable leadership qualities is capable of leading much younger hired hands in maintaining their spread.
Much as he did in his “Dead Man’s Burden” (2012), an appreciably darker sagebrush saga, Moshé depicts violence in a sudden and shocking fashion, without reliance on slo-mo mayhem or lingering closeup. This is especially true of the inciting incident that propels the narrative: While Eddie and Lefty are conversing during their pursuit of rustlers, Eddie is fatally shot by one of the men they’re tracking, and Lefty is left to bring his friend’s body back to Laura.
Lefty vows to hunt down Eddie’s killer, but his noble gesture fails to impress Laura. And when two men who used to ride with Eddie and Lefty — James Bierce (Jim Caviezel), now the governor of Montana, and Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan), a U.S. Marshal — arrive at the ranch to pay their condolences, they, too, think Lefty has bitten off way more than he can chew. Tom rides out to bring Lefty home, whether he wants to return or not. But Lefty isn’t so easily diverted from his self-appointed task.
Throughout much of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” Moshé methodically amps the suspense by repeatedly raising the question of whether Lefty actually is capable of doing what he’s set out to do. On one hand, it seems reasonable to assume a steely-eyed lawman like Eddie Johnson wouldn’t have relied on Lefty to watch his back for over four decades if the cantankerous coot couldn’t be relied on in a pinch. On the other hand — well, he’s always been just a sidekick, not the star attraction. Truth to tell, it comes as a relief when Lefty picks up a sidekick of his own: Jeremiah (Diego Josef), a gun-toting whippersnapper who’s eager to establish himself as a hero like the ones he’s read about in dime novels. But in a movie filled with as many reversals of fortune as this one, it’s never safe to predict who will display the most courage, or competence, under fire.
At heart, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” is a drama about the flawed men behind the exaggerated myths, the evil men do for what they view as the greater good, and the staggering impact of disillusionment. It also is a movie that takes its time, rambling rather than galloping toward a dramatically and emotionally satisfying climax. The key supporting players are excellent across the board — to be more specific would be to risk spoiling at least two surprises — and Pullman gives a performance that ranks with his career best as a man who’s painfully aware of his own limitations, yet determined to transcend them through sheer force of will. To put it simply and admiringly: As the least likely of Western heroes, Pullman rides tall.