INDIE FILMMAKERS TAKE NOTE: One device that director McEwen employs throughout American Outlaws is interweaving the narrative with actual news reports about the Dougherties from local and national news channels. This trick effectively adds immediate context as the plot rolls along. It also plays well in the “where are they now” end credits. It helps that the cast nails down the specific dynamic of this family perfectly. Heck, Cohen, Eisley, and Strike even look like siblings.
Another star is the story. Based on Kathy Dobie’s GQ article, “The Whole True Story of the Dougherty Gang,” the crime-thriller paints an incredibly sympathetic portrait of a family. The trio just wants to rise above their hopeless situation as a lower-middle-class family eaten up by the recession of the 2010s. Dylan, Ryan, and Lee Grace wish to escape in hopes of a better life away from the United States. None of them wants to hurt anyone. They just want to go.
“…the cast nails down the specific dynamic of this family…”
I never read Dobie’s article, nor did I have any knowledge of this until now. Considering McEwen’s slick action-thriller vibe, I guess that a lot of liberties were taken facts-wise. Except for the actual news reports, it feels like a Hollywood thriller. I still debate over whether there should be a line between cinematic storytelling and docudrama. That aside, American Outlaws is a helluva thriller, and I suppose that’s what counts in the end. It’s a fun flick.
Writing-wise, the three main characters are young, immature adults who act more out of desperation than malice. They are also incredibly flawed but brilliantly developed people who make one wrong decision after the other. All the while, Dylan, Ryan, and Lee Grace want their kindness to come out, yet they are forced to turn to their violent nature to escape. We have the makings of true anti-heroes. I couldn’t help but root for the family’s escape while praying they wouldn’t pull the trigger to seal their fate.
Ultimately, I highly recommend McEwen’s sophomore feature, American Outlaws. It’s clear he’s a fan of action movies and made this look like a big Hollywood film, just on the cheap. From the pace to its swagger and tone, the filmmaker proves he’s an action director in the making. However, his most incredible feat is that he makes us care about and feel sympathy for the criminal protagonists to the point that I was rooting against the cops until the very end.
American Outlaws screened at the 2023 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
"…makes us care about and feel sympathy for the criminal protagonists..."