Producers: Elliot Lester, Graham Phillips, Parker Phillips and Eric Watson Directors: Graham Phillips and Parker Phillips Screenplay: Graham Phillips and Parker Phillips Cast: Graham Phillips, Jacqueline Toboni, Shawn Hatosy, Mike McColl, Irene Bedard, Ritchie Coster, Jamie McShane and Sydney Schafer Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Some lovely cinematography by David J. Myrick, especially in its widescreen far shots, distinguishes “The Bygone,” a contemporary western that deals with a substantive theme—the sexual abuse of Native American women—but does so in such a plodding, contrived fashion that by the overextended finale it’s become risible.
The putative hero of the piece is Kip Summer (Graham Phillips, who also wrote, directed and produced the film in collaboration with his brother Parker), a young aspiring cowpoke whose father Hadley (Jamie McShane), ill and grieving the loss of his wife, also seems about to lose their ranch in the western Dakotas, where oil fracking is rife. Fortunately, Kip’s rich uncle Beckett (Ritchie Coster) is on hand, willing to buy it to add to his spread.
But Kip is still sad about the family’s fortunes, and goes to a brothel to unwind, though he can’t go through with its full-service option. Instead he rescues one of the place’s employees, a Lakota woman named Waniya (Sydney Schafer), from an abusive customer, and later gives her a lift back to his ranch, offering her a place for the night before she can go off to the safe house run by activist Ms. Call (Irene Bedard).
Waniya’s disappearance raises the ire of her brutal pimp Paris (Shawn Hatosy), who is soon on her trail, aided by his equally nasty partner in crime Jamie (Jacqueline Toboni). He roughs up Kip and retrieves Waniya, which prompts stern Sheriff Cole (Michael McColl) to order the boy to leave the matter to him, but of course the young man can’t do that.
What follows is a series of revelations that lead to a confrontation out in the wilds, where Kip finds out the truth about Paris and his confederates and intervenes again to rescue Waniya. His actions earn him yet another beating—the kid doesn’t prove to fit the heroic champion mold—but everything is resolved as one might expect, with villains vanquished and good guys left to fight another day, although they are some loose ends left hanging.
The Phillips brothers’ screenplay aims to raise the issue of the mistreatment of Native American women ever since the whites stole their territories (a pre-title caption card informs us that before that, sexual violence was virtually unknown in the tribes, which seems an unproven generalization). While it succeeds in doing so, however, it ultimately makes the subject secondary to a plot literally about buried treasure and the lengths that greedy, unscrupulous people will go to get their hands on it.
Within that context the script also skimps on characterization, making Paris the sort of taciturn, nasty villain who’s implacable and nearly invincible, and Jamie as no less vicious. It also portrays another bad guy—who shall not be identified here, though viewers will have no trouble seeing through him—as one of those garrulous windbags whose grandiose schemes, which he gets to explain at length, carry a hint of sheer craziness. Waniya, meanwhile, has a hard-edged dignity to her but ultimately is just the proverbial damsel in distress, while Kip never rises beyond the level of a pint-sized heroic wannabe. It doesn’t help the character that Kip disappears for a good while in the middle of the picture, leaving the narrative to center on the duel between Paris and Sheriff Cole—a sidebar which winds up not advancing the plot much.
Hatosy easily takes pride of place in the cast, exuding malice—though frankly he hasn’t much competition. Toboni and Schafer are fine and McColl does gruff stoicism decently, but McShane is over-the-top. His very broad turn is a sort of counterpoint to Phillips’ undernourished one as Kip, who always seems to be moving at half-speed a few steps behind the curve. Perhaps the young actor’s attention to his directing duties hobbled his performance, and led to pacing, accentuated by Carsten Kurpanek’s unsteady editing, that drags badly.
Still, there are a few vistas that have been nicely captured by Myrick’s camera (though set in the Dakotas, the movie was actually shot in Oklahoma, with oil rigs on display from time to time), and while “The Bygone” won’t win any awards for inventiveness or overall execution, it’s a modern western that at least tries to say something substantive, even if it muddles the message with a hokey plot.