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Lonely Are the Brave
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by Jay Seaver

"Kirk Douglas at his best, and the end of the Western way of life."
5 stars

"Lonely Are the Brave" has a really fantastic opening: A cowboy breaking a horse on the open range, suitably weathered, taking a nap with his hat pulled down over his eyes. It could come out of any of a hundred westerns, except that when the cowboy removes his hat and looks up, there are jet contrails in the sky, indicating that it's the present (that is, the 1960s), rather than a century earlier.

That cowboy is John W. "Jack" Burns (Kirk Douglas), and he's been making his way to New Mexico, where old friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) is in jail for helping some illegal immigrants. Bondi's wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) informs him that there's no visiting day before Bondi is to be sent upstate to prison, so Jack gets into a bar fight in order to be tossed in there with him. Bondi doesn't want any part of Jack's plan to help him escape - serving his two-year sentence beats the five tacked on for a jailbreak - but Jack doesn't figure he can handle the year he's facing for assaulting a police officer. He escapes, but that puts Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) on his trail, with all the modern technology available.

Kirk Douglas is wonderful in this role. Jack is bigger than life in a lot of ways, a personification of the old West (or at least, the romanticized version of it). He's affable, friendly with just about everyone; even when things come to blows, he'll fight with one hand behind his back if his opponent is a one-armed man or stoically take a beating. It's very easy to be in awe of Jack, and enjoy how he flummoxes the police by not carrying any sort of ID. Douglas reveals the downside of being a throwback slowly; we see him uncomfortable in Jerry's kitchen, and though there's no one scene where he or anyone comes out and says it, we see that underneath his Western ruggedness and charm, Jack is afraid of the modern world.

It makes us re-examine him as the film goes on, and maybe view some of his free-spiritedness as antisocial behavior, although it's hard to view him terribly negatively - he means no-one any harm and comes across as someone who couldn't be any other way even if he were to try. It makes the second half more interesting, because we're not only never quite sure which way the manhunt (and its flip side, Jack's dash to Mexico) will go. Is this the sort of movie that paints Jack as an anachronism that is ultimately no match for the modern world, or celebrates his indomitable spirit (either by him escaping or by him going out in a blaze of glory)? Will that come at a price? Director David Miller and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo don't tip their hands until very late in the game, so there's quite a bit of suspense attached to each move Jack makes.

It's not entirely Kirk Douglas's show; there's a nice cast of (then) up-and-coming actors supporting him. There's Gena Rowlands as the charming Jerry Bondi, and Michael Kane as her husband. There's early work by Carroll O'Connor (as a truck driver in a seemingly separate subplot) and George Kennedy (as a sadistic guard/deputy); both just what is needed from their smaller parts. And then there's Walter Matthau, a delight as the sheriff pursuing Jack. Matthau provides a bit of comic relief just from the annoyed looks he gives Johnson's deputy, but never plays up the comedy so much that we don't think of him as smart. He's a worthy and respectful adversary.

Miller ends the film with an image nearly as iconic as the first, with nary a false step in between. Aside from being one of Douglas's own favorite roles, "Lonely Are the Brave" is a loving but clear-eyed eulogy for the Old West as well as a highly entertaining chase film.

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originally posted: 01/16/09 08:37:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/08/10 User Name A harrowing account of a man living in a orderly world , featuring bravo performances. 5 stars
1/16/09 brian Son Michael Douglas says this was his dad's favorite of his own films. I can see why. 5 stars
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