The following review is coverage for the Twin Cities Film Fest.
One should not underestimate the importance of archetypes. Yes, archetypal characters are often derided as trope-saddled reductions that don’t afford further complexity, but it’s important to remember that, especially in genre fiction, archetypes are the backbone of narrative efficiency, the shorthand that writers use to communicate a lot of universally understood information about a character so that they aren’t required to expound at length on commonly acknowledged facets of the human condition. Archetypes are the expressway directly to the most basic and essentially understood aspects of a people and a culture, and through the subversion of those archetypes we can explore the implications of that culture. To call The Ballad of Lefty Brown a treatise on archetype would be a bit of an overstatement, but at its core this western is all about subverting what you think you know about a sidekick.
Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) is out riding with his close companion of forty years, Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), when Edward is suddenly shot and killed by a horse thief. Edward’s grieving wife Laura (Kathy Baker) blames Lefty for not looking out for Edward, so Lefty vows to track down his best friend’s killer despite a universal belief that his ineptitude will prevent him from doing so. In his journey, Lefty takes a cocky teenage upstart (Diego Josef) under his wing and meets up with an old friend-turned-marshal (Tommy Flanagan) who acts as the key to decoding the motive for Edward’s murder.
Now, Lefty is the epitome of the bumbling sidekick character. He’s none too bright and is quick to defer to the judgment of others, but he’s also exceedingly loyal and devoted to those he cares about. The Ballad of Lefty Brown could be considered a late coming of age story for the sixty-something Lefty, but writer-director Jared Moshé is much more interested in demonstrating how Lefty has always risen to the heroic occasion in his own way. Lefty’s loyalty drives him to place himself in harm’s way, but never at the expense of those better at fighting, and he’s a born caretaker who knows how to dress a wound and raise morale. This is a film about finding heroism in the so-called small feats, and in many ways Lefty is even more exemplary than the gun-toting deliverers of justice he accompanies.
However, Lefty Brown isn’t without its issues to answer for. For as empathetic and engaging as Lefty is as a representation of his class of character, Pullman’s performance verges dangerously close to being a caricaturized depiction of mental disability. This facet of Lefty’s intellect is never named or fully explored, so it may just be modern sensibilities creeping up on a dated archetypal convention, but it is slightly uncomfortable to watch Pullman affect a slurring, wandering thought process that wouldn’t feel out of place in a patronizing disability weepy. Furthermore, there’s something decidedly unfortunate in how the film’s ultimate villain is portrayed as a bastion of social progress that Lefty must take care of to avenge a friend who stubbornly wished to hold on to the past; it makes the film feel purposely regressivist at a time when social regressivism is an all too real threat in modern progressive society.
Even so, there’s a lot to enjoy in The Ballad of Lefty Brown‘s deconstruction of the western’s emblematic sidekick character. Heroism comes in more forms that gun-toting and trailblazing. Sometimes it’s the supports that deserve the recognition, and as Lefty rides off into the sunset he leaves a greater impression than those he followed ever did.