I’ve been known for my recurring and frankly obsessive phases, especially when it comes to movies. One period of time you’ll see me going through a catalogue of horror classics, filling my fragile mind with visual gore, stupendous jump-scares and fiendish monsters. Another time I’ll be going through the filmography of one of my favorite directors.
And now I’m getting into westerns, particularly the Spaghetti Westerns. I do like a good John Ford/John Wayne vehicle now and then, but none of them have the grit and grace of a Sergio Leone film. Perhaps this newfound love for westerns has been spurned on by the upcoming Deadwood film — which will be one of my most highly anticipated films of all time. I don’t know. I’ve been on this planet a few decades now, I still haven’t figured myself out yet.
So when I came across Never Grow Old, some indie western starring Emilie Hirsch and John Cusack, I thought it would be ideal subject for me. I hadn’t expected much, partly because the last few films I’ve seen that have starred John Cusack weren’t really impressive. Still, while Never Grow Old shall never be reckoned as one of the greatest modern Westerns of our time, I do have to say, I was pleasantly surprised with its quality.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Ivan Kavanagh
Written By: Ivan Kavanagh
Starring: John Cusack, Emile Hirsch, Déborah François, Tim Ahern, Danny Webb, Paul Reid, Anne Coesens with Blake Berris and Sam Louwyck as Dumb-Dumb
Somewhere in the mid to late 1800’s, the town of Garlow is ruled by a devout preacher (Danny Webb) who has banned every lucrative sin of its time; particularly alcohol, gambling and prostitution. This economic sanction might be good for the soul but it does endanger Patrick Tate’s (Emilie Hirsch) livelihood, who is the town’s undertaker.
The delicate balance of piety and sobriety is lost upon the arrival of darkly clothed Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his cronies Fred (Blake Berry) and the mute Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck) — the reason for his muteness is due to him having lost tongue in a Comanche attack.
Albert has come to town looking for an old associate, Bill Crabtree (Paul Ronan), who has stolen money for him. He forces Patrick to bring him and his unlawful fellowship to find him. Even though they aren’t able to find Bill, Albert takes an insidious liking to Patrick. Perhaps because he senses a man of purity, respecting him for being a man of trade.
Dutch Albert opens up the town saloon again, bringing forth gambling, prostitution and alcohol in town. Soon enough, the bodies begin to pile up, much to chagrin of Sheriff Parker (Tim Ahern) whose devotion to the law only weakens his ability to take a stand. Patrick however is secretly enjoying the flow of money coming his way, despite his creeping guilt of profiting from Albert’s villainy.
Patrick’s wife, Audrey (Déborah François), quickly realizes how the soul of Garlow is being sucked away by Albert’s lawfulness. She wants to leave this town with Patrick and her children. Patrick is initially reluctant, as he doesn’t want to face the insecurity of the wild west and all the dangers that lurk there.
But we know how such a tale will end. Such a tale filled with bloodshed can only end with more bloodshed. And soon Patrick must take a stand…
The Revisionist Western
The Western genre is known for its gun-toting, cigar-chomping, cinematic heroes. Characters based on the dime-store mythology of shootists and righteous bandits. One such heroes was John Wayne, who propagated this myth for decades. When the revisionist western began to take stride in the mid-sixties and early seventies, Wayne was vehemently against it. Clint Eastwood‘s second directorial feature, High Plains Drifter, one of the best of the seventies westerns, had enraged Wayne because of its bleak depiction of the Old West.
Seventies cinema has always been about broken dreams. Manson had permanently tainted the hippie movement, and America’s supremacy was mercilessly challenged by the Vietcong. Cinema-goers needed to exercise some demons. The romanticism had to die, the American audience needed a vicious slice of reality. The West was therefore shown in a new light. So came High Plains Drifter, Little Big Man, McGabe and Mr. Miller and so forth.
The revisionist Western is still going strong. Modern filmmakers continue to explore the genre, sometimes tackling it from new perspectives. One of the most noted examples were Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, which ventured into the deep-seeded racism permeating the era. We even had a fair share of feminist Westerns, with the excellent and underrated The Homesman and the unrelenting Brimstone.
Never Grow Old, while not as good as previous examples, is an excellent revisionist western in itself. Like so many of its kind, it’s about the battle of savagery and morality, and how those two things can become intertwined.
It’s about profiteering from the suffering and death of others — the inevitable by-product of great world economies. It’s about the moral hypocrisy of a supposedly pious community and how savage men will take advantage of their fragile fellow man.
John Cusack as Dutch Albert is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the film. The performances are excellent all around but it’s John Cusack who dominates the screen as the villainous, almost demonic Dutch Albert.
Albert feels like a character straight from Cormac McCarthy literature, an intellectual force of evil, someone with an almost supernatural ability to read people.
There’s a disturbing amount of sanity in his evil deeds. He never strikes unless someone defies him. There’s a tiredness in his eyes. This is someone who has long understood the weakness of the human animal. He’s been around too many sleazebags and con men. He has seen how desperation can turn any good men wicked. He stopped caring about what’s right or wrong. There’s no such thing. There’s just taking what you can get.
When he comes across Garlow and hears about its Christian piety, he sees a community ripe for corruption. Like the slithering snake in the paradise of Eden, he appears in Garlow to provide the community with all manner of sinful temptations. Anybody who stands in his way, will find themselves riddled with bullet holes.
Cusack’s idiosyncratic charisma and introverted presence fits the character perfectly. Even though he spend most of his career playing lovable romantic rogues, this seems to be the kind of role he was born to play.
A Strong Supporting Cast
While Emile Hirsch and John Cusack as the protagonist and antagonist are both perfectly cast, a special mention needs to be given to Never Grow Old‘s strong supporting cast. Each receive some much-needed depth. From the brimstone spewing preacher (Danny Webb) to weak-willed sheriff Parker (Tim Ahern). Both their characters have a satisfying pay-off to their arc. We must not also forget Déborah François as Audrey, the strong wife and mother, who refuses to be a submissive subject to her spouse.
But out of all of them, it’s Anne Coesens as Mrs. Crabtree and Manon Capelle as her daughter Emily who are the most memorable of the supporting cast Both their go through some extreme trauma and heartbreak, leading to desperate and ultimately tragic actions. Their storyline is hard to forget, especially its conclusion.
The Cinematography and Music
Darkness pervades the world of Never Grow Old, as it would be in a time when electricity didn’t light up every household. Every flicker of light seems to appear from its natural environment. It gives the film the raw and authentic look it needed. All of this is credited to the incredible work of cinematographer Piers McGrail.
The atmosphere is created by its score from Aza Hand, Will Slattery and Gast Waltzing. The soundtrack is melodious, brooding and melancholic. It feels perfect for the time period and the tragedy that will reign down in the town of Garlow. The song in the credits is the perfect and particularly moving elegy to its cast of characters.
Never Grow Old is one of those films you don’t expect much and surprise the hell out of you. The performances are incredible all over, particularly from John Cusack who hasn’t been this good in years.
Like all great Westerns, we see the external but also internal combat of civilization and humanity’s savage nature. We see how the savage west and so-called “civilization” are not that far apart.
It might not necessarily become a Western classic, but it’s nevertheless an excellent subject of its genre.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Never Grow Old? Comment down below!
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Good to read that Cusack is back on his game.
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