There are plenty of the former but few of the latter in “Outlaws and Angels,” a home-invasion tale set in late nineteenth century Southwest—unless you assume that anyone who’s shot or bludgeoned to death automatically gets a halo and a set of wings, however brutish they’ve been while alive. Lugubrious and talky, JT Mollner’s debut feature is also unrelievedly nasty and absurdly pretentious. As much as one would like to extend a warm welcome to the all-too-rare western that appears in theatres nowadays, this is one horse opera that comes up lame.
The film opens with a bloody bank robbery in Cuchillo, New Mexico, that sends the gang riding off into desert. After being informed by a grubby farmer (Luce Rains) and his shrewish wife (Frances Fisher), whom they shortly kill, that their victims included a government man and so a high price has been put on their heads, they go off into trackless wilds where they assume no one will follow. Eventually the inhospitable region reduces their number to three: brooding boss Henry (Chad Michael Murray, mumbling his lines grimly through his beard), sniveling weasel Charles (Nathan Russell) and big buffoon Little Joe (Keith Loneker).
But Henry has underestimated the persistence of bounty hunter Josiah (Luke Wilson, who appears to be sleepwalking—or perhaps his lethargy is the result of the hot locations). Learning their route from a witness the outlaws have unwisely left behind, he presses on after them, accompanied by his loyal lieutenant Alonzo (Steven Michael Quezada). He also has the habit of pausing to deliver voice-over monologues that suggest depths of meaning to the story that never become apparent.
The trio of baddies have, meanwhile, happened upon a dusty ranch house with a pretty little chapel nearby. The place is occupied by a strange family: alcoholic father George (Ben Browder), his Bible-thumping wife Ada (Teri Polo) and their two daughters Charlotte (Madisen Beaty) and fifteen-year old Florence (Francesca Eastwood). The girls clearly despise one another, a feeling that’s probably exacerbated by the fact that, as we later learn, their father does not always show them paternal devotion but something else, while their mother looks the other way.
What follows is a painfully protracted game of cat-and-mouse, with the outlaws toying mercilessly with their captives. But the ranks gradually shift as Henry and young Florence lock eyes and more. The girl morphs literally overnight into a gunslinger, and she and Henry join forces to punish her family for their transgressions. Josiah arrives only after Florence has taken her full measure of revenge on the world, and he proves no more able to divine what’s going on than the rest of the corpses that have piled up by then.
There may be some dark message in all of this, but if it’s anything beyond the idea that all the reprehensible people in the world—who appear to be in the clear majority—deserve the worst that can be dished out to them, only Mollner knows. But if the writer-director is unable to deliver a message more profound than that life is a kind of hell, he certainly shows himself to be skilled in staging blood spurts (presumably with the help of his special effects makeup man Toby Sells). A major motif of the picture involves a person standing over a fallen victim and either shooting or bludgeoning him to death, splattering him or herself with great sanguinary gushes in the process. If one were cruel, he might say that the picture takes a similar stance toward its viewers—it punishes them, quite cruelly. Michael Haneke also did so in “Funny Games,” but he was doing so in a darkly satirical way to comment on the violence of popular culture. Perhaps Mollner intends something similar—or perhaps a grimly feminist statement—but if so, he fails to make what it is clear.
The cast, however, perform their functions with dedication. Most of the attention will be on Eastwood, Clint’s daughter, and she certainly shows screen presence, if not much more. (It’s a pity she doesn’t share any scenes with her mom, Fisher.) Otherwise, however, the pickings are pretty slim, with Murray and Wilson, the best-known names, pretty much phoning in their performances and most of the others just providing various shades of forlorn grubbiness. The exception is Polo, who goes so berserk that she seems to think she’s playing a female version of King Lear. On the technical side, the craftsmen do what they can on what must have been a modest budget, with Matthew Irving’s cinematography and the designers (David Baca on production, Liz Pecos on costumes and Susan Magestro on sets) apparently taking their cues from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The score (attributed to Colin Stetson and Aleks De Carvalho) is largely nondescript, except when it incongruously inserts long passages from works by the likes of Schubert and Chopin into the mix.
Some directors have survived introductory misfires and gone on to better things. One can always hope Mollner will be one of them. In the meantime, one must dismiss “Outlaws and Angels” as a decidedly inauspicious debut.