Most Westerns don’t let the sidekick take charge and become the hero, but that’s exactly what happens in The Ballad of Lefty Brown. It’s a decision by writer-director Jared Moshe that pays homage to so many great sidekicks through the years. All of them could walk away at anytime from being a sidekick, since the job is a choice. They don’t seem to walk away because it’s the only life they know. Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) could have walked away at any point, but he’s long decided to stick it out with Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), now appointed to serve as a U.S. Senator for Montana in the 1880s, out of loyalty as much as anything.
Appointed to take over the ranch, to the dismay of Eddie’s wife Laura (Kathy Baker), it’s Lefty who rides by Johnson’s side when the legend goes down at the hands of a livestock thief (Joe Anderson) hiding off in the distance. Because of his long standing as Johnson’s right-hand man, nobody has ever taken Lefty Brown seriously. Not Laura, or even his old friend and Montana Governor James Bierce (Jim Caviezel), show an interest in listening to Lefty. They’d rather just let things be. Bierce, under a complexity of bureaucratic layers, does send help in the form of their mutual friend, U.S. Marshall Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan), but one suspects that Bierce has his own agenda at stake, what with his desire to build the railroad up into Montana. At the center of it all is Lefty, forced to take charge of his own destiny in order to track down Johnson’s killer. Along the way, Lefty has to learn for himself that even the best friends can turn out unkind.
In searching for Johnson’s killer, Lefty has to make the tough calls. He’s unaccustomed to doing so, as Johnson was usually the one to hide him from the bad side of the West. He runs into the young Jeremiah Perkins (Diego Josef), an arrogant runaway who can’t take care of himself, and later learns of Bierce’s involvement. The governor is a foreboding presence in the distance; he’s ambitious, and those ambitions show through and through. And when Lefty is wrongfully accused of killing his longtime partner, he has to add the clearing of his name to his to-do list. Even Johnson’s own wife doesn’t want to believe Lefty when he’s framed. Making things all the more interesting is the friendship between Johnson, Brown, Harrah, and Bierce in earlier years. As Lefty and Harrah team up to track down the killer, Harrah’s alcoholism gets the worst of him, all while Bierce’s own agenda looms large.
Josef, a newcomer, delivers a breakout performance as Perkins. If Lefty Brown is any indication, expect to see the young actor in more things to come — a future star on the rise. And Flanagan, the Sons of Anarchy alumnus, is absolutely superb as Harrah and could very well have been an awards contender in a leaner year. If given a time machine, Flanagan — who brings a deep emotional intensity to his performance — would be a Western superstar if only he’d arrived on the scene a few decades earlier.
Lefty Brown is a guy who, at 63 years of age, is just now having to find out who he really is. It’s because of this that the film is ultimately revealed as a coming-of-age story, albeit at a later age than usual. For most of his adult life, Lefty lived vicariously through Johnson, and with Johnson murdered, Lefty has to face a new and harsher reality. Pullman is perfect for the role, and it’s convenient that the Spaceballs star is the same age as the character. Lefty is unlike anyone he’s portrayed before, and you can add Lefty Brown to the list of great Pullman performances, because few could possibly play this part and bring to it what Pullman does.
Moshe’s approach turns the Western genre on its head by having the sidekick rise up as the hero. It may seem like a crazy idea at first because, after all, the sidekick is a character so often seen as comic relief (think Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo or any other movie starring John Wayne), but disguising the film as a coming-of-age story serves to strengthen Pullman’s performance. It’s an unexpected idea seldom explored by the Western before, and makes The Ballad of Lefty Brown such a unique experience from other Westerns by offering a fresh take on one of film’s oldest genres.