Certain things just go together. Baseball and hot dogs. Mom and apple pie. Peanut butter and jelly. And yes, Texas and the western; a classic combination renewed in Austin, Texas-based director James Crowley’s ruggedly elegant spaghetti western “The Journeyman.”
This yin and yang tale tells of two brothers separated at a young age when a gang of bandits led by Charlie Ledbetter (Barry Corbin) arrive at Samuel Hancock’s (Willie Nelson) ranch and guns him down in cold blood. Though the young boys try to hide, they’re quickly discovered. The older brother sacrifices himself by charging out of his hiding place and, as his younger brother looks on in terror, finds himself drug off behind a gang member’s horse.
Thirteen years later, the brothers’ destinies remain intertwined, if mutually opposed. The Morphinist (Brad Hunt), the elder of the two, has become a ruthless, ice-in-his-veins killer and morphine addict for whom gunning down unarmed women and children is the same thing as killing armed gunmen.
Younger brother The Journeyman (Daniel Lapaine), a stoic and silent figure, remains a step behind, tracking his cruel sibling in the quixotic hope of redeeming his soul.
As fate would have it, the next checkpoint in the brothers’ cat and mouse game is the payroll office of the mining company owned by none other than Ledbetter. After distracting the workforce with a rolling brothel operated by the transvestite madam Ezekial Gore (Joe Stevens), the Morphinist gets away with the loot, along with a healthy stash of morphine, while his hapless band of accomplices doesn’t fare nearly as well. One henchman winds up dead. The other, Walter P. Higgs, III (Dash Mihok), survives the set-up via a clever ruse and embarks as a new man upon a mission of vengeance. A few days later, the Journeyman gets himself hired on with Ledbetter’s gang and resumes his quest to track down the elusive killer who is his brother.
If the Spaghetti Western had been invented this year, it would look a lot like “The Journeyman.” Not only does director James Crowley’s sprawling saga take full advantage of its sweeping Texas vistas; landscapes which at times nearly swallow these rugged individuals on the frontier of civilization, but the addition of the morphine addiction threadline adds an unusually contemporary twist to the conventional western genre. Crowley uses flash framed, double exposed sequences drained of all color to depict the drug’s hallucinogenic side effects, which gives those portion of “The Journeyman” a certain experimental/music video-ish feel. Thankfully, these sequences aren’t just for show, as they actually do fill in key information left out by that thirteen year jump in the timeline.
At times, the film is a little too languid and brooding. It’s almost as if the viewer’s the one slumped in the saddle crossing the endless desert-scape of the wild west. Yet, such “get on with it” moments are more than offset by the film’s sheer visceral qualities; the sights of the Old West literally enhanced by the sounds and figuratively aided by the taste and touch of dirt and rawhide.
Finally, the performances are superlative throughout. A bit too big, perhaps, but that somehow only seems to make these folks all the more charismatic.
The Western is an endangered genre because filmmakers have forgotten how to do it “right.” “The Journeyman” nails it so well, one almost expects to see Clint himself squinting his across the silver screen alongside the Journeyman. Leave it to some Texans to make a real western again.