Irish writer & director Ivan Kavanagh's town-tamer western "Never Grow Old" contains the elements of classic oaters, among them "Canyon Passage," "Shane," "The Searchers," "A Fistful of Dollars," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Pale Rider," "Silverado," and "Unforgiven." Kavanagh's sixth feature retools traditional western tropes for maximum dramatic impact. Trendy during the 1930s, Hollywood cranked out hundreds of white-hat versus black-hat, morality lessons, with clean-cut cowboys, mustached bad guys, soiled dove saloon girls, and straight-shooting heroes. The Western matured in the 1950s, and heroes and villains became more complicated. Gregory Peck worried about what his reputation had done to him in "The Gunfighter" (1950). The Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s escalated body counts and launched Clint Eastwood. In the cynically titled "Never Get Old," the wide-open spaces are obscure. The sun rarely shines. Life amounts to a hopeless struggle against overwhelming odds from sunrise to sunset.
Kavanagh doesn't paint the Old West in warm, romantic colors as an Eden in the wilderness. This stark, gruesome, Gothic-oriented epic takes place in the Great Northwest, where the Alan Ladd classic "Shane" (1953) was lensed. The story occurs not long after The Mexican War (1846-1848), but before the American Civil War (1861-1865). The U.S. Cavalry has dispersed all Native Americans. A fire & brimstone clergyman, Preacher Pike (Danny Webb of "Crow") banishes liquor, gambling, and prostitution from the town of Garlow. Peace settles for a season as Pike dictates municipal policy with the Christian Temperance Union. The town's revenue streams dry out, and the economy withers. Three depraved ruffians ride into Garlow searching for a treacherous cohort. They wrestle control of the town from the histrionic Pike. The preacher condemns them with hellfire for serving liquor, shipping in prostitutes, and resuming gambling. Afterward, mud, blood, and beer mingle in the streets, and the body count rises with frequent regularity. In this R-rated shoot'em up, nobody is immune to murder. The townspeople are craven. The victims are innocent lambs. The villains are ferocious wolves. Only bad things happen. As with all westerns, "Never Grow Old" relies on a venerable formula from start to finish to generate suspense about the outcome. Kavanagh's grim, unsavory depiction of the Old West resembles "Bone Tomahawk" with its cathartic violence. Nobody suffers enough, and the villains are just as liable to fateful intervention. Kavanagh gives us a glimpse of the frontier that is believable. You can starve to death here. Mountains may not sprawl in every shot, but the sheer sense of isolation is devastating.
Cast as Irishman Patrick Tate, Emile Hirsch doesn't qualify as your quintessential, towering, ten-gallon, hero. Neither cowboy nor farmer, Patrick serves as the town's carpenter and undertaker. Most of the time, we see him hammering together coffins and burying the dead. Wed to a French wife, Patrick is a former Catholic who has converted his family to a mainstream denomination owing to harsh religious intolerance. Basically, Patrick occupies the fringe where the discriminating WASP majority keeps him at arms-length. Not only does his Irish heritage make him an outsider, but also it doesn't endear him to these inflexible, holier-than-thou, hypocrites. Although Patrick attends Preacher Pike's church, he remembers better days fondly when sin brought in more bucks. The waning economy prompts him to persuade his wife, Audrey (Déborah François of "Unmade Beds"), that perhaps they should leave. Originally, they had planned to settle in California, but found themselves sidetracked in Garlow. Audrey refuses to uproot their family. She treasures the tranquility. Moreover, she is pregnant.
One dark, stormy evening, a trio of the Devil's spawn enters Garlow and plunges the town into chaos. Surprisingly enough, romantic comedy heartthrob John Cusack surpasses himself as a homicidal hellion with a tour-de-force performance. Memorably despicable in every respect, Christopher Dutch Albert (John Cusack of "Grosse Pointe Blank") looms as a loquacious, larger-than-life adversary. He maintains a menacing, low-key delivery throughout "Never Grow Old," and his dialogue sounds like Elmore Leonard penned it. Dutch goads people. He manipulates Patrick with his charismatic personality and encourages him to act against his own best interests. After he learns Patrick is the town undertaker, Dutch sets out to establish a stronger alliance. Patrick accommodates Dutch, because it is the lesser of two evils.
Patrick makes a convincing but sympathetic hero. He dodges confrontation. Ironically, when commerce picks up, Patrick finds himself in a rewarding position. As the villains pander to the townspeople, more of them die in gunfights, and Patrick is paid more to plant more. Several times, we watch Patrick dig up the strongbox where he stashes his wealth. Patrick probably never heard of Faust, but he has forged a Faustian deal with Dutch. Audrey shames Patrick for his new-found prosperity. He tries to distance himself from Dutch. Dutch badgers Patrick about being his friend. Indeed, Dutch praises Patrick's honesty and wonders idly if they can be friends. Were this not enough, Patrick worries about Audrey's safety. Dutch's right-hand thug, a vulgar cretin named Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck of "The Bouncer"), lusts after Audrey after he meets her in the General Store. Dumb-Dumb is a repellent specimen of humanity. According to Dutch, Comanches cut out Dumb-Dumb's tongue. Now, the cretin totes the severed piece around as a souvenir of his encounter. Dumb-Dumb amuses himself by sticking the fragment into his lips and wiggling it at people. Patrick hates Dumb-Dumb, and he knows Audrey is scared to death of him. One day, while Patrick is away from home, Dumb-Dumb sneaks onto the premises to pay Audrey a surprise visit. The suspense grows unbearable, but the outcome will startle you.
"Never Grow Old" ranks as a minor western masterpiece. John Cusack makes a terrific villain. Lensed on location in Ireland, this European western oozes with atmosphere. Writer & director Ivan Kavanagh has fashioned a worthwhile western. The haunting imagery of insane Preacher Pike on his knees in front of Dutch's saloon wreathed with flames against the night sky makes an incredibly apocalyptic impression!