Never Grow Old

This is a dirty, muddy western. Simple in nature, but of biblical proportions. Themes of sin, greed, pillaging and run amuck religious fervor abound in a small town. Some residents are holier than thou. Three are evil incarnate. A few are law-abiding. Too many are intimidated. The worst deserve a bullet.

Watch this movie for just a short time, and you wonder who directed and wrote this tale. It’s obviously a low-budget picture, but the money that’s spent is well spent. Nothing in it feels like a typical Hollywood B-movie western. It’s too well thought out, rendered and has a very authentic style that mirrors the lives of old pioneers. The last film of its ilk that was this raw and messy was the Kevin Costner film Open Range. In that western, gunslingers would aim their pistols at adversaries and it would take five to ten shots for one bullet to wound their rival. That’s how gunfights were back then—never exact and rough around the edges. This film feels that primal.

An Irish undertaker/carpenter Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), along with his French wife (Déborah François), a young son and daughter live on the edge of Garlow, a frontier settlement just east of the Rockies during the 1849 gold rush. They’ve put down roots here, but were actually on their way to western California. Dreams deferred. The local preacher (Danny Webb) lords over the town. Under his brand of religious tyranny, he‘s banished gambling, alcohol and whores. Until…

One day a blood-thirsty outlaw, Dutch Albert (John Cusack), and his two henchmen ride into town. They say they’re bounty hunters looking for a crook. They force Tate, by threatening his family, to lead them to the suspect’s home, where they intimidate his wife. That’s the beginning of the bullying. The trio reopens a local saloon, and brings back booze, prostitutes and gambling. All the while Tate takes their blood money as he buries their victims. 

The boundaries between good and evil blur very quickly in this parable. Yet it takes a while for the film to gel. The primitive sets and limited locations are so modest you’ll wonder if they made the movie on a silver-dollar budget. It’s all part of Irish director/writer Ivan Kavanagh’s plan. Strip everything down to the bare essentials. Go for the authenticity, reimagine the harshness of the times, embrace an indie look and a small budget will not betray you. Nothing was shot on a soundstage, it was all on locale in a surprising place (Ireland) during autumn and winter. An expert attention to detail and atmosphere is quite evident. 

Editor Dermot Diskin trims the drama/thriller down to 100 minutes. The first 20 seem long, but they set up the story, prop up the characters and prepare you for an onslaught of threats, murder, deception and powerplays that take their time playing out. Between Kavanaugh’s script/direction and Diskin, everything seems well paced, scenes are cut to the nub and any motions that are repetitive (watching the greedy undertaker bury his money is more telling than a thousand words) are repeated on purpose and increasingly effective.

The tech team never overplays its hand: The very plain log cabin sets bring to mind the crude structures of the early 19th century (John Leslie production designer). The shades of browns, greens and tans keep the color palette earthy (art director Marc Ridremont, Mary Shelley). Smartly, costume designer Jackye Fauconnier declines to put sparkly new clothes on the actors. Their threads look as rustic and worn as old burlap bags. As shot by cinematographer Piers McGrail, with anamorphic Panavision lenses from the 1970’s, the exteriors never glow, they’re cloudy and gloomy. The dim natural light interiors are as dark as they should be. Add in a brooding, ominous musical score (Aza Hand, Will Slattery and Gast Waltzing). 

Actor Emile Hirsch, who is five-feet seven inches, was born in Topanga, California but you wouldn’t know that by his flawless Irish accent. His humble manor and height play well against the very intimidating trio of bad guys. At six-feet two-inches, John Cusack towers above him, looks like Goliath and is quite intimidating. Nasty to the core. It’s a pity so many movie fans will only ID him as the fun guy from High Fidelity. He brings baggage with him to this role, but his performance defies his filmography. Déborah François is just gritty enough as the mom. She’s as earthy as Jessica Lang was in Country. Tim Ahern as Sheriff Parker, a man who has had his power neutered, fits the bill. 

Viewers expecting a big-budget Hollywoodish western on the magnitude of Tombstone, Unforgiven or The Magnificent Seven should look elsewhere. Never Grow Old is a small, mid-1800s frontier opera that tests its characters’ mettle. In this allegory, people either rise up to fight evil, are complicit or become victims. Leave it to an Irish writer/director, Ivan Kavanagh, to masterfully take a classic American film genre back to its roots. 

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