An Irish undertaker profits when outlaws take over a peaceful American frontier town, but his family comes under threat as the death toll rises.
The Western, as a cinematic genre, keeps coming back from the dead. With Kevin Costner busy hunting down Bonnie and Clyde in John Lee Hancock’s The Highway Men, it was up to the Coen brothers’ throwback compilation The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and, to a certain degree, Jacques Audiard’s oddball The Sister Brothers to keep the Western alive. Now indie filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh steps in with the audacious but sadly underwhelming Never Grow Old. The film may not resuscitate the genre, but does it justice, flaws and all.
Don’t expect green pastures and sunlit duels though. Kavanagh drags us deep into the Western’s underbelly; his story set in a grimy, muddy little town of Garlow. To liven it up a bit, Reverend Pike (Danny Webb) managed to get rid of all the “gambling, alcohol and whores,” waxing poetic at his church about making America “paradise here on Earth.” Irish immigrant Patrick (Emile Hirsch) dreams of leaving this dump to California, but his French wife Audrey (Déborah François) resolutely promises that “it’ll pick up.”
“Irish immigrant Patrick dreams of leaving this dump to California, but his French wife Audrey resolutely promises that ‘it’ll pick up.'”
A menacing figure by the name of Dutch Albert (John Cusack) rides into town one night, like the Grim Reaper, along with his posse: tongue-less, rapey side-kick Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck) and Italian weirdo Sicily (Camille Pistone). Before Patrick knows it, he’s neck-deep with the evil trio, as they take over Garlow, bringing back all the “gambling, whores and alcohol” – and ultra-violence along with them. Patrick’s “honest, worker’s hands” get stained with blood, and soon enough it’s Audrey begging her husband to leave.
Kavanagh proves adept at handling suspenseful sequences, carefully applying a wistful, melancholy varnish to the violence. His film mourns this country’s inherently bureaucratic foundation: The town’s sheriff (Tim Ahern) valiantly but fruitlessly demands an explanation for a senseless murder in a crowded bar. Dutch brings a still-righteous Patrick along to witness a gruesome nighttime funeral. An intense poker game results in a tragic death. A prolonged murder takes place inches away from a clueless, playing child.
Granted, Never Grow Old tends to straddle the line between “heartfelt” and “gratuitous,” evident in scenes like the one in which a bar filled with people gets casually burnt to a wisp. Another sequence depicts a brutal hanging of an innocent girl. Kavanagh throws in the good ol’ “blood-splattered-on-the-cross” chestnut for good measure.
“…Hirsch has always been a criminally underrated actor and here…carries the emotional weight of the film.”
As evident, the plot isn’t exactly original, with a borderline-funereal tone and pace. Piers McGrail’s beautiful cinematography, coating everything in an autumn amber, makes one wish that more of the film took place during the day, instead of immersed in pitch-blackness, folks lighting each other’s grubby mugs with torches.
If you get past the wonky accents, the performances are decent. Emile Hirsch has always been a criminally underrated actor and here, sporting a thick beard, carries the emotional weight of the film. It’s also good to see the great young Belgian actress Déborah François cross the ocean (she was terrific in the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant) and add spark to the deeply-American proceedings with her distinctly European flare. Cusack, after slumping in a string of straight-to-VOD duds, perks up here, pupils glaring evilly through ashen eyeliner, chewing scenery as the remorseless despot. “I’m not gonna lie to you, ma’am,” Dutch tells a woman whom he later turns into a prostitute, “I’m going to kill your husband… I’m gonna blow his head clean off.”
Ivan Kavanagh has an eye for style and a clear gift for building suspense. That said, the film is sadly less than the sum of its frequently-impressive parts. If nothing else, his messy, violent, dark and sad reflection of our society proves that the Western will never grow old.
Never Grow Old (2019) Written and Directed by Ivan Kavanagh. Starring John Cusack, Emile Hirsch, Déborah François, Danny Webb, Paul Reid, Blake Berris.
6 out of 10