Jared Moshe has a thing for graves. His debut feature, Dead Man’s Burden (2012), which unfolds in the wake of the Civil War, opened with a murder and a funeral, and took place almost entirely on a single homestead surrounded by entombed bodies — fathers shot down, brothers killed in battle — memorialized by the rough-hewn epitaphs of their gravestones. The burial that occurs close to the outset of the writer-director’s sophomore Western, the 1889-set The Ballad of Lefty Brown, involves not a corpse but a firearm — the closely cherished rifle of one Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), a beloved but old-mannered rancher who, just before his death, had been elected senator of Montana. (We see him hang a man in the early minutes, in a blasé skirting of the judicial process.) Bidding adieu to Edward’s legacy is the underestimated Lefty Brown (a furry Bill Pullman), Edward’s right-hand man of some 40 years, who was there at the moment the senator-to-be was shot clean through the head. Now, in the lonesome twilight, Lefty promises payback.
Unlike Dead Man’s Burden, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a traveling movie, with Lefty canvassing the land for clues as to the whereabouts of Edward’s vicious killer (Joe Anderson). As such, the rambling narrative allows Moshe opportunity to bask in the West’s as-far-as-the-eye-can-see vistas, which he and cinematographer David McFarland — shooting on 35mm and relying largely on natural light — capture in sumptuous glory. The ensemble, too, encompasses more personalities than the confined, four-person-focused Burden: There’s Fonda, glinting enchantingly through his story-spurting cameo; Jim Caviezel, deliciously narcissistic as the state’s scheming governor (“I just put my pants on the same way as you,” he says, with absurd vanity, to an admiring youngster); Kathy Baker, as Edward’s dogged wife, who longs to manage her husband’s farm in the aftermath of his passing; Tommy Flanagan, as a recovering-alcoholic U.S. Marshall whose fondness for the bottle roars back to life; and Diego Josef, as a gullible adolescent whom Lefty happens across, and forms a friendship with, along his treacherous trip.
Moshe relates his tale of can-do vengeance with an unfussy clarity and an obvious fondness for the oaters of yesterday’s Hollywood — an affection that, as in Burden, imparts a winning sincerity. What elevates The Ballad of Lefty Brown above that effort is the peculiarity of the hero, an oddball full of contradictions and charms. Even taking into account his decades-long association with the celebrated Edward, nobody thinks much of Lefty, a stumbling, awkward man who delivers many of his sentences in a mumble, his voice cracking with uncertainty. (This proves doubly the case when people start considering, with growing suspicion, that Lefty himself might have had a role in the murder.)
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Pullman ambles through the role gently, garnering easy sympathy as a seemingly unintelligent man whom people trivialize and “who” — in Lefty’s words — “never got anything right.” But Pullman cuts no corners in depicting the man’s soft-spoken mysteries. A standout scene shows Lefty attempting to remove a bullet from the stomach of his wounded sidekick (Josef), and with each unsuccessful stab (“Lord, I can’t find it”) — and each grimace from the injured boy — a small part of us roots for a more assertive protagonist, a Peter Fonda type to rip the thing out and put a stop to the pain in one fell swoop. Indeed, when Lefty at last completes the task, he seems almost incredulous at his own success. But Lefty is also a man who has made it this far on his own imperfect terms, and who, on the way, earned the undying loyalty of a figure as well-respected as Edward Johnson. Might he have known what he was doing all along?