Saturday, March 23, 2019

Movie Reviews: Never Grow Old

Never Grow Old
directed by Ivan Kavanaugh
This was a chilling Western with both classic and revisionist themes.
It is sobering to grow older and see actors of your generation who once played sarcastic teens move to playing alienated young men then change to playing pudgy middle aged dads. In another ten years or so they'll be playing grandfathers. So it goes. Time waits for no one.

There are some cultures that and some people who consider a stranger mentioning a man's wife to be a faux pas at best and an intolerable insult or threat at worst. Although we now tend to view such interactions thru feminist eyes and claim that such negative responses are bad because they imply that the wife is her husband's property, the point remains that in certain charged circumstances or situations asking "innocently" after the well being or presence of a man's wife or other female relative is indeed meant and understood as a serious insult or deadly threat.

It's no different from the classic mob hoodlum telling the bar owner that he has a beautiful establishment and that it would be a shame if something happened to it. In this movie, a dark-both visually and morally- Western that attempts some modern revisionist surgery on classic Western themes while also upholding them, the bad guy Dutch Albert (John Cusack) is introduced in a late night encounter at the protagonist's home. 

Dutch inquires if the hero, the undertaker/carpenter Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) knows the location of a certain man. When Patrick is initially evasive, wary of Dutch's intentions, the laconic Dutch casually asks Patrick if Patrick thinks Dutch should ask Patrick's wife instead. This frightens Patrick. He agrees to lead Dutch to the resident's home.

This is an establishing moment for both characters. The soft spoken Dutch is morally unfettered while the diffident Patrick has trouble standing up for himself. And Patrick may not want to stand up for himself because as Dutch soon declares with seeming sincerity, he and Patrick are friends. 

We see Patrick's slow fall into (and rise from?) damnation. Dutch remains in this frontier town. Ignoring the town preacher Pike (Danny Webb) and the ineffectual Sheriff Parker (Tim Ahern), Dutch and his men reopen the saloon and bring back alcohol, prostitutes, and gambling, all of which had previously been outlawed.

Corruption and violence spread. Dutch is smart enough to make his murders look like self-defense and dangerous enough to intimidate eyewitnesses. As Patrick is the undertaker, Dutch is good for business. Patrick's wealth increases. But there's a cost. More local women, even young girls, are enticed or forced into prostitution. Church attendance dwindles as (male) worshippers become more interested in getting a drink or a sexual experience than in hearing another fire and brimstone lecture from Pike.  

Patrick's marriage to his wife Audrey (Deborah Francois) suffers. Audrey dislikes Dutch. Audrey doesn't like how Dutch speaks to Patrick or her. Audrey doesn't appreciate that one of Dutch's goons, the mute giant Dum-Dum (Sam Louwyck) watches her with unambiguous lust. As Dutch matter of factly tells Patrick it's been a long time since he or any of his men "had a woman as fine as your wife".  Patrick will have to decide where his limits are. What are his red lines? Most men have them. Dutch is evidently unconcerned with Patrick's red lines.

This is Cusack's best work in a long time. His minimalist style works well in this movie and for his character. We don't know his background, and we don't need to. I liked that the preacher's frustration and desperation was so real. The preacher is lost without the threat of damnation to scare people into obedience. 

Although the preacher, like most white men of that time, is bigoted, he is also someone who is honestly angered and hurt that he can't protect his flock, morally or physically. He's confronting real evil. And he's not up to the task. He's impotent when the Big Bad Wolf comes knocking on his door. The preacher can't provide what people want.

Hirsch shines as a man who struggles with greed, ambition, cowardice, alienation and love all at the same time. Patrick wants to provide for and protect his wife and children. Sometimes a man must do hard things to meet those goals. Sometimes those goals are contradictory. The music and cinematography were dark and spooky.  They were very important to the movie. Events are often difficult to see or hear. But that choice works here. Dutch doesn't need to yell or gesticulate in order to scare people or make himself understood. And he's a man of darkness-visually and morally. The film title also refers back to the old gospel song of the same name, which although it was written after the events depicted in this film, still fits this movie perfectly as the town's earthly heaven turns into something else. This is a movie that has a lot to say about the moral choices we make. These decisions are independent of time and place.
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