Lefty finds himself in the position to avenge his friend and partner, even though no one has any confidence in his abilities. It’s the perfect role for Bill Pullman.

Ballad of Lefty Brown movie poster
Big-screen Westerns have been a relative rarity in recent decades, but writer-director Jared Moshé ’01 has made two in five years: first his directorial debut, Dead Man’s Burden, and now The Ballad of Lefty Brown, spotlighting the kind of ornery old coot who might have been the sidekick in a classic Clint Eastwood Western.

Bill Pullman plays the title character, who’s spent 40 years as the right-hand man to rancher and lawman Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda). Edward is an archetypal Western hero, introduced (with Lefty at his side) rounding up one last lawbreaker before heading east to take his place as Montana’s first-ever U.S. senator (the movie is set in 1889).

But Edward isn’t the hero; he gets shot and killed a few minutes in, while attempting to bring in a band of horse thieves who raided his ranch, and Lefty finds himself in the position to avenge his friend and partner, even though no one has any confidence in his abilities.

It’s the perfect role for Pullman, who’s had occasional lead parts but is mostly known for playing someone’s dad or boss or mentor. Like Lefty, he doesn’t get many chances to step up and prove himself, but when he does, he makes the most of it. Pullman’s Lefty is grizzled and cantankerous, but he’s never a buffoon, and Pullman finds the soul and honor in a man who’s constantly underestimated.

“You’re gonna stand tall, or you ain’t,” Edward tells Lefty as he’s preparing to leave his friend in charge of the ranch, and at that moment, Lefty seems like he’s leaning toward the latter option.

But as he pursues Edward’s killers, along the way picking up his own sidekick and discovering a sinister conspiracy, the self-described “man who never got anything right” shows courage, demanding justice when almost everyone else has compromised or given up. Moshé splits the difference between deconstructing the genre (mainly via the self-aware commentary on Lefty’s character type) and honoring it, with clearly delineated good guys and bad guys and a literal ride off toward the  horizon for the hero at the end.

One glorious badass moment puts a gritty twist on the principle of Chekhov’s gun.

Moshé stages some suspenseful gunfights and gives his protagonist one glorious badass moment that puts a gritty Western twist on the principle of Chekhov’s gun—although the middle of the movie slows down too much, and the eventual reveal of the true culprit is slightly underwhelming.

A movie like this is as much about atmosphere and local color as it is about narrative, and Moshé gives the Montana scenery a sense of grandeur, populating it with entertaining supporting characters including Kathy Baker as Edward’s indomitable widow, Tommy Flanagan as Edward and Lefty’s haunted war buddy, and Joe Anderson as the sleazy mercenary who took Edward down. Shooting on 35mm film, Moshé evokes the look of classic Westerns along with their spirit, making a worthy addition to a struggling but proud genre.

Josh Bell ’02 is the Las Vegas Weekly film editor.