It ain’t easy being an Irish carpenter/undertaker in a muddy frontier town in the mid-19th century.
Sure, you’ve got a beautiful and strong and smart French wife, and two lovely children, with another one on the way — but you’re struggling to make ends meet, and you’ve just had to put down your only working horse, and now there’s got a posse of nefarious, gun-toting creeps showing up in the middle of the night, making demands and throwing around threats. And that’s just a Tuesday.
Emile Hirsch is the carpenter/undertaker Patrick Tate, and Deborah Francois is his wife Audrey — and just when they were talking about maybe leaving the town of Garlow and making their way to California, business starts picking up for Patrick.
Which is kind of a classic good news/bad news scenario, what with Patrick being an undertaker and all.
Writer-director Ivan Kavanagh’s “Never Grow Old” is a dark and spare and blood-spattered Western, with fine work from Hirsch and Francois, and an entertainingly nasty turn by John Cusack as the villain Dutch Albert, who’s just as menacing as Chris Pratt’s bad guy in LAST week’s Western, “The Kid.” Filmed in the shadows of the deep night and the mist of rainy days, “Never Grow Old” feels authentic to the rough and raw era and locale. (The town main “street” is just a wide path of mud lining the obligatory church and general store and hotel.)
The Garlow of 1849 is a repressed but peaceful little town run by the fire-and-brimstone Preacher Pike (Danny Webb), who has banished all traces of alcohol, gambling and “whores.” Enter Cusack’s Dutch Albert and his men, who storm into the region with one specific and deadly purpose, after which they’ll be on their way.
At least that’s the original plan.
Dutch is one of those eloquent killers who love to listen to the sound of their own voice. He also clearly relishes the unsettling, menacing effect his mere presence creates. So when Dutch learns of the town’s dry profile and sanctimonious ways, he decides he’s going to stick around and facilitate some major changes. Cut to a month later, with the booze flowing in the re-opened and regularly packed saloon, which features a number of professional young women in the upstairs rooms.
John Cusack in "Never Grow Old." | Saban Entertaintainment
Garlow is also suffering from a rash of violence that usually ends with one or more bodies in pools of blood, creating more and more work for Patrick the carpenter/undertaker. Patrick is even enlisted to build a gallows after it is decided a prostitute should be hanged after she kills a brute with his own gun.
A town that not long ago aspired to be a kind of heaven has turned into hell on Earth. “Never Grow Old” is brutally unblinking. (After one young victim is placed in a coffin, the camera lingers on her peaceful expression, which is all the more haunting because we know how she died.)
Hirsch‘s Irish accent comes and goes from one line reading to the next, but he’s solid as the conflicted Patrick, who as an Irish Catholic was never fully accepted by Preacher Pike and his flock, and now seems to be almost enjoying his status as one of the few people in town Dutch seems to respect. (Dutch even formally asks Patrick to be his friend, in a kind of bro-proposal.)
Cusack delivers suitably chilling work as the murderous Dutch, who pulls the trigger with matter-of-fact precision and almost always finds a way to justify his actions.
Of course, Patrick and Dutch aren’t really friends, and as tensions escalate, we know it’s only a matter of time before the brutality comes knocking on Patrick’s door, and the town of Garlow might be looking for a new carpenter/undertaker after this one has been buried in a box of his own. Writer-director Kavanagh serves up the religious imagery and allegories in heaping portions, sometimes to the point of using visual exclamation points to punctuate already obvious points. Still, this is a well-made, rough-edged and solid frontier fable with a distinctive look and fine performances all around.