“I was wrong about you, Irish. You’re American by blood.”
With Never Grow Old, Ivan Kavanagh (The Canal, Tin Can Man) presents a version of the American West that is about as far as you can get from the sun-drenched rolling hills and prairie of latter-day John Wayne movies. In keeping with other “revisionist” Westerns such as The Hateful Eight and Unforgiven, his American Frontier is a harsh, grey, muddy place, drenched in the blood of saints and sinners alike.
Set in the frontier town of Garlow, Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) plays Irish immigrant Patrick Tate, the local carpenter and undertaker, scraping out a living to support his wife and two children in this puritan town, devoid of the luxuries of wine, women and song. Into his world arrives a trio of bounty hunters on the trail of a former resident of the town who decide not only to stay, but to resurrect the saloon in defiance of the local reverend. John Cusack (Grosse Point Blank, 2012) plays Dutch Albert, the leader of the trio, accompanied by his companions Dumb-Dumb and Sicily. One who can’t speak after having his tongue cut out, and the other who doesn’t speak any English. Inevitably where there are booze and guns, the bodies begin to mount up. This is certainly good for Pat, but not so great for the town as a whole.
Before talking about anything else, all the praise needs to be heaped on John Cusack here, as his portrayal of Dutch Albert turns him into a terrifying character. He hardly ever raises his voice, hardly ever shows a flash of temper, but at the same time exudes menace in every scene; a man who lets his actions do the talking for him, who never lets a slight go, or forgets to collect on a debt. A man who decides to take on poor Pat as his new “friend”, minutes after shooting his last friend in the head. This surely won’t end in a hail of gunfire and blood. Nope.
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This film is not an easy watch. There’s precious little hope or happiness to be found, and everything is permeated by an atmosphere of dread throughout almost the entire running time, just waiting for it all to go sideways, waiting for it all to kick off and the bullets to start flying. The tipping point comes with one specific scene just over halfway through, which is again a brutal thing to watch. Starkly filmed and directed, there’s no respite to be found even as the audience knows that this is the moment, that point in a film where the race towards the end begins and nothing will ever be the same again. That now there is nothing but consequence.
Released with seemingly very little in the way of fanfare, and only available in the UK on DVD, this is a film that deserves more attention. The cast all turn in great performances and John Cusack steals every scene he’s in. Is it a little clichéd in places? Certainly. Does it tell some revolutionary new tale about the Old West? No. Does any of that matter? Hell no.
What Never Grow Old does, is present us with a taut, slow burn thriller where the ending is never really in doubt, but the journey to get there is still an enjoyable, if difficult one. Fans of Tarantino-esque movies and Westerns should give this one a look. I’m glad I did.
Never Grow Old is out now on DVD from Altitude Films.