Outlaws And Angels has one of the ugliest worldviews in recent memory. Set in 1887, J.T. Mollner’s feature debut reveals a vision of the Wild West where every man, woman, and child has a villainous side they aren’t afraid to show. Those who die deserve their deaths from the moment they are introduced, and those who live only do so because they kill others before the others kill them. It’s a movie that doesn’t seem to care whether or not you like a single person on screen, and unfortunately for everyone involved that is among the least of its major issues.
The story is as old as the Western genre itself: Three violent fugitives hold a family of four hostage in a rural farmhouse while a gang of equally violent good guys track them across the desert. If you’re expecting a twist, there is one, but it’s buried under so many genre tropes and nasty moments it’s hard to feel impressed when the film finally decides to try and stand on its own. Mollner may have written the script, but he did so with the structure of a hundred or so films far older than himself, only Mollner’s take lacks the pacing and character development needed to make audiences give a damn for the duration of his story’s two-hour runtime.
Replacing the elements of storytelling that typically make Westerns a fun watch in Outlaws And Angels is violence, domestic abuse, fear of sexual assault, rape, and a gratuitous amount of cheap, CGI blood splatters intended to tear down the idea that the Wild West was any more pleasant than its name suggests. These tools for shock may have made for a successful genre twist 20 years ago, but now they just feel like side dishes that are served without a main course. Violence and nastiness for the sake of violence and nastiness isn’t entertaining, or at least not in this case.
Chad Michael Murray leads the villains as Harry, a mumbling man with a beard that seems to exist for the sole purpose of giving Murray a bit of grit in his otherwise teen-friendly appearance. His opposition, a bounty hunter named Josiah, is brought to life by an equally out of place Luke Wilson. How these two ever came into this production is beyond me, but if there is any kind of deity controlling the ebb and flow of Hollywood neither one will return to the Old West any time soon. It’s not that either one is particularly terrible, yet there is something to their presence in the story that is as distracting as it is compelling. You want them to work, just like you want the film to entertain, but it simply doesn’t fit.
The saving grace of the cast is Francesca Eastwood, daughter of Clint Eastwood, who plays one of the two children living in the home where Murray’s men set up shop. To say she learned from the best should be a given, but for a newcomer Eastwood wastes little time commanding not just her scenes, but the film as a whole. There are easily a dozen characters in this film, if not more, but hers is the only one that truly offers more than meets the eye. She’s also the only actor who has any kind of arc.
Mollner’s direction is a textbook example of attempting to channel the influence of your hero only to end up creating a shoddy knockoff of their far superior work. The heavy reliance on long takes and swift camera movements are lifted straight from the Tarantino playbook, with the only difference being the fact that Mollner’s screenplay has the pulse of dead horse. Mollner tries to cover this with quick pans and zooms, but when juxtaposed against scenes that often run a solid minute too long, they feel as out of place as the top-billed cast. It’s almost as if Mollner shot one movie and wrote another hoping the best parts of each would shine through, but instead his efforts had the opposite effect. Every flaw in his direction and script work is glaring, and they feel more easily identifiable when juxtaposed against the few extremely brief moments of brilliance that do occur.
Outlaws And Angels makes me fear for the future of Westerns. The genre that once ruled the silver screen hasn’t had a true hit in years, and films like this digital bit of garbage from J.T. Mollner are not likely to turn that tide any time soon. Finding something to appreciate about this film outside the performance of Francesca Eastwood is next to impossible, but not even her brightest moments—which are numerous—make me feel like I should recommend anyone else waste their precious time on this Earth with this film. From beginning to end Outlaws And Angels plays like a film that was made based off a first draft script, and I hope for your sake it never consumes five minutes, let alone two hours, of your life.