Outlaws and AngelsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/16/16 05:53:28
SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: JT Mollner's "Outlaws and Angels" is a blood-soaked Western that may be a little too much for some, and even those who are fond of such things may think it's a bit much, albeit for different reasons. Even if the often-ugly story gives one reservations, it's still worth checking out, especially if you're lucky enough to see it on the big screen: It's gorgeous to look at, and has a great Eastwood performance to boot (although not the guy who leaps immediately to mind when one says "western").It doesn't quite open with a bank robbery in 1887 Cuchillo, New Mexico - no, it introduces us to a couple of innocent bystanders first, then sets a band of killers on the lam. One's shot off his horse before he even gets his mask off, and what Henry (Chad Michael Murray), Joe (Keith Loneker), Samuel (Marty Lindsey), and Charie (Nathan Russell) don't realize is that one of the customers they killed was a cop, so you best believe that the sherrif is making sure that bounty hunter and expert tracker Josiah (Luke Wilson) is on their trail. That trail is destined to intersect with the Tildon clan - preacher father George (Ben Browder), even more pious Ada (Teri Polo), and daughters Charlotte (Madisen Beaty) and Florence (Francesca Eastwood), which seems like it could be a tense place even befoe a group of murderous bank robbers shows up.
It's probably a sign of the times that there's actually a Kodak company logo among the studios and production companies (including, believe it or not, Orion Pictures) indicating that it was shot on 35mm film, as this is now something that can't exactly be assumed. It is, however, an effort and expense that a viewer should be grateful Mollner and cinematographer Matthew Irving took; the picture is gorgeous, whether it be the New Mexico scenery or the copious amounts of bright red blood that gets spilled. More than that, a large portion of the film takes place over a sleepless night when the light is mostly supplied by fires and candles, a distinctive and evocative environment that digital photography seldom captures just right.
The look of the film, great as it is, comes in second to the nastiness of it. As much as writer/director Mollner is going for a spaghetti western vibe, there's a bit of giallo to this movie when it comes to the violence, showing the audience the pulp to which someone might be beaten and doing the exact opposite of having someone clutch an apparently bloodless wound when shot; the splatter gets everywhere. More important than these superficial signs is the raw unsentimentality at work throughout the movie: Early scenes of Charlotte bullying Florence hit just as hard as the scenes that leave more obvious marks, there's such an obvious, unrepentant cruelty to them, and as innuendo about what goes on in the Tildon house comes into sharper focus, Mollner connects the pragmatism of "the frontier way" with the selfishness of people just doing whatever they want.
That doesn't mean there is no morality to this movie's world, just that it's all twisted up. Chad Michael Murray's Henry gains his charisma in large part because one can see that he considers himself an honorable man who gets genuinely disgusted by the mistreatment of women, but that principle only goes so far, and the sadistic joy he takes in punishing those transgressions isn't exactly healthy either. It serves as great fuel for the main engine of the movie, where Henry naturally finds himself drawn to the beautiful, hurt Florence, with the audience grinning to themselves because they've seen how she can shoot, and though her finding some way to turn the tables is never in doubt, the exact way she does so is a terrific jolt.
Francsesca Eastwood is terrific in general; she's the daughter of Clint Eastwood and Frances Fisher (who turns up for a small role herself), and when the time comes, she's got enough steeliness for both, but that steel often seems to have been directed inward as much as outward. Florence has a powerful inner rage that she may not have even realized she was holding in check, and Eastwood is just as good at playing the victimized Florence and the one who is still trying to comprehend what kind of power she has. That she seems genuine both when sweet and mercenary isn't the end of it; Eastwood makes us feel that Florence is truly finding what she is in this world.
She's the center of this movie, but the rest of the cast is strong as well, often surprisingly so. Ben Browder, for instance, has spent a lot of time being a dependable, often entertaining genre television regular, but George might be his best work, superficially funny and over his head but able to make that into something despicable as more of this guy is revealed. Teri Polo, similarly, has played a lot of pretty, generically-likable girlfriends in unremarkable movies, and though she's worked enough that she's probably had a chance to play someone like Ada before, I can't remember her ever seeing her attack something like this mother who uses "the Holy Spirit" as a means of control with such relish. Luke Wilson does a great job of drifting in and out of the movie and making Josiah someone whose skills and general attitude are mostly admirable enough, though when he does something unpleasant, it doesn't seem particularly out of character.
It can be a bit much, though. Outlaws and Angels is never dour, thankfully - Mollner leavens it with plenty of humor, although much of it is so pitch-black that I'm loath to try and explain why it works out of context (there's one scene that, without really showing anything, maxes out both hilarious and inappropriate). There were times when I couldn't help but think enough was enough, though - the middle was probably on me, as I was tired going into my second film after travelling all day, but Mollner has the opportunity to end the movie on a great scene that gets across everything about shattered principles, greed, and utter amorality that had been going on, but the movie just keeps going for a couple more drawn-out sequences like he didn't feel like he could end it without dotting every last i in the script.
(And then there's a post-credit outtake that reinforces that - funny, distinctive, and having no idea when to just end.)Whatever one may feel about the bloody murder and worse things that happen, anyone who sees "Outlaws and Angels" will probably have it stick with them. It's a mean-spirited Western, but an often-terrific one.
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