There’s a new Western in town: The Ballad of Lefty Brown. Once upon a time Westerns were a staple of the movie industry. Now when one comes out they create a bit of nostalgia. As a genre Westerns focused on the mythology of America—especially freedom and hard work creating a growing, prosperous nation. At their best, Westerns dig deeper to address some of our culture’s problems. But for the most part they were really a veneer that made America look like we wanted it too. The latter is very much what we find in The Ballad of Lefty Brown.
The twist in this film is that the sidekick becomes the hero. Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) has been the sidekick of famed Montana lawman Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) for many years. Now Johnson is about to head to Washington as a new Senator. He wants to leave Lefty in charge of his ranch, even though Johnson’s wife Laura (Kathy Baker) doesn’t think Lefty is up to the job. Lefty isn’t too sure he is either. He has always been in Johnson’s shadow. Even when Lefty, Edward, the current Governor Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel) and Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan) were keeping peace in the area and inspiring dime novels about their exploits, Lefty was never in the stories.
When Edward and Lefty are out looking for some rustlers, Edward is killed. Lefty vows to get those responsible. When he sets off he comes across Jeremiah (Diego Josef) a young man who has read all the stories and seeks glory as a gunfighter. When Tom Harrah (now a U. S. Marshal after years of alcoholism) comes to stop Lefty, Lefty convinces him to join in the hunt. The three track down the killers, but they also discover that there are powerful people behind the killing. On returning with the information, Lefty discovers he’s been framed for the killing. He is determined to see justice done, even if it means exposing the political corruption that may taint an old friend.
In Lefty, Pullman is almost channeling Gabby Hayes, who was a frequent sidekick to heroes like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Bill Elliott. There is a certain incompetence that characterizes sidekick, and Lefty seems far below the skill level we expect in a hero. But his sense of loyalty, determination, and justice, propel him to be the hero he has never been.
The film’s shortcoming is that it is so cliché. It seems all the characters are what we would expect in an old Saturday Morning serial. The noble Edward, the morally week Marshal, the corrupt politician, the young tenderfoot with dreams of grandeur. And at the center of it all is the sidekick, usually the comic foil, but can he rise to the task of being the story’s hero? For those who want a bit of the nostalgic feel of old Westerns, The Ballad of Lefty Brown might feed that, because it is all so familiar. But aside from the virtues of loyalty and friendship, there’s not much here to challenge our thinking about what America really is or should be.