Director: Ivan Kavanagh
Writer: Ivan Kavanagh
Stars: Emile Hirsch, John Cusack, Déborah François
The Western has become the forgotten genre of recent years in the world of movies. Relegated to small theatres or released amid a flurry of higher profile pictures on streaming sites, one would think that cowboys and Indians have gone extinct. But despite the lack of major studio interest, there are still directors out there who are willing and able to mount that old horse and ride out to the horizon with a tale of their own.
Ireland’s Ivan Kavanagh (Tin Can Man, The Canal) has written and directed a new picture, Never Grow Old, starring John Cusack, Emile Hirsch, and Deborah Francois. The film takes place in the pre-war nascent town of Farlow, on the California Trail. In Farlow there is enough fog for Jack The Ripper to disappear in and sufficient mud for a weeklong music festival.
Amid the elements, is a town of fervid religiosity and pious sermonising where the locals gather in the Presbyterian church. The preacher (Danny Webb) reminds his congregation that Farlow can be a shining example of American exceptionalism. They have rid themselves of Indians and now a new diktat will see the town free of drinking, gambling and prostitution. This is the real American Dream.
Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) is an immigrant undertaker from Ireland. He lives with his wife, Audrey (Deborah Francois) and their two children. Times are easy for no one in the west and things are no different for Patrick and his family. Audrey wants the family to continue travelling the coast to ensure a more prosperous life for the family.
Just when it looks like there isn’t enough graves to dig, Dutch Albert (John Cusack) rides into town in search of an old friend and bank robber. Soon enough, Tate is recruited as a friend by Dutch. ‘You kill two friends, you can make another one.’ Albert says. Cusack, with his greasy black hair and persistently soggy features brings enough quiet danger to the role. He could easily be a sort of dark avenger from the great beyond. He can see fear in people’s eyes, no less his new friend, Tate. With his two dingbat buddies, Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck) a full-on cowboy minus a tongue, and Sicily (Camille Pistone) a Mediterranean menace, Dutch takes over the town. He reopens the saloon, and the drinks begin flowing again.
A battle between right and wrong quickly ensues between Dutch and the town, the problem being neither one is exactly right. Dutch brings about havoc with a loose trigger finger and a sharp aim, while the sheriff and the preacher are less militaristic in their posturing, but insidiousness lies not far beneath their rhetoric.
At the heart of the film is a quagmire of competing forces. Cowardice and Strength. Morality and greed. Peace and chaos. Wealth and poverty. Patrick Tate is a weak, cowardly man. He gives up on his religion in order to fit in, wilfully facilitates Dutch in his unlawful pursuits, and refuses to speak up in the face of injustice and murder. Is this the true foundational history of America? What does it take for a man to overcome his shadow and speak the truth?
Director, Kavanagh, lays out these questions and allows the viewer to decide on the fact of the matter. The film, however, is quite slight, except for scenes of barbarity which are cruel in their slowness. There is nothing particularly surprising and the pace is dulled in the second act. You can almost feel the cracks that split the movie apart toward the finale. Kavanagh compensates for this by going back to the common stylistic tropes of the genre which barely conceal the cracks.
What works about the film is the commitment to the material.
Never Grow Old is nothing new but it is a solid entry into the genre, reminiscent of such Westerns as The Hunting Party and The Unforgiven. John Cusack, who doesn’t normally bring the sinister to the screen, gives a performance of deep subtlety, bringing Dutch Albert to life with slow and ominous speech patterns and delivery. Also, the film was shot entirely in the west of Ireland, which makes a somewhat murkier depiction of the American midlands than you might expect. But the hazardous elements and desolate landscape help to create that atmosphere of dread and isolation.
Never Grow Old is a Western that uses the typical tropes of the genre well enough and with unflinching devotion for a worthy viewing experience.