For anyone who’s ever wondered why the legendary Peter Fonda hasn’t appeared in more movies of late, his performance in The Ballad of Lefty Jones provides a pretty conclusive answer: Over the years, his acting talents may have just dried up as much as the desert that serves as the setting for this deliberately old-fashioned western.
He’s by no means to solely blame for the movie’s shortcomings, especially since his role is so (thankfully) brief. But his cameo-esque turn serves as a fitting introduction to the rest of this tepid affair, every element of which is not only as dry as the aforementioned desert, but also as dry as this extended metaphor has now become.
Casting Fonda was probably an attempt to connect to the classic cinematic tales of the frontier that The Ballad of Lefty Jones strives to homage, but much like his performance, it’s a superficial treatment at best. Pulling off this sort of deliciously-melodramatic “ballad” requires cutting to the substantive core of this rarely-revived genre (the rarity of which is even more shameful considering how many other sources of nostalgia have been tapped…dry; movies like this year’s Frozen City: Dawson Time should remind everyone that we need more gold rush stories!). These westerns must balance spectacular grandiosity with intimate minimalism, both essential to capturing their conception of humanity. What they can’t do is lack the sort of colorful life nowhere to be found in The Ballad of Lefty Jones.
From the acting to the technical elements, the surface handling of the material never probes sufficiently deeply into these genre trappings. Bill Pullman, who plays the title focus, is the type to match the quality of a script. If it’s great, he’s capable of scaling those lofty heights. But when it’s anything less — and here it’s much, much less — he just as easily succumbs to the lowest common denominator. The only member of the cast who fares even adequately is Jim Caviezel, once again proving that he’s deserved a better career post-Jesus, especially since he’s clearly suited to parts that call for such performative mining.
The technical aspects leave much to be desired as well. Some shots are pretty, but where’s the meaningful image composition? How about a sweeping score? Any inviting production design? Why bother senselessly harkening back to a bygone era of cinema without even channeling its seminal staples?
No innovation is fine if everyone involved revels in the period appeal. Without both, this artistic enterprise is up shit’s creek.