Never Grow Old – Film Review
by Diana Pérez García
Directed and written by Ivan Kavanagh
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Déborah François, John Cusack
Opens on Friday August 23rd
Ivan Kavanagh’s western Never Grow Old opens with a shot of Irish-born carpenter and undertaker Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) approaching the entrance to a ravaged-looking church packing a loaded shotgun, ready to carry out the kind of retributive bloody business that constitutes the bread and butter of any self-respecting frontier man. Although neither churches nor shotguns are unusual sights in a western, they do not tend to mix, temples being the one place in the wild west where punters may get some respite from firearms. This momentary conflation of the divine and the profane serves as a visual shortcut for Kavanagh’s revisionist morality tale. It also advances the Manichean juxtaposition of religious extremism and exploitative capitalism that informs this ponderous and painterly western shot in Galway and set in the California Trail in 1849.
Kavanagh has chosen to tell his story in flashback and what follows this opening scene will, needless to say, lead the viewer to the disclosure of what lies behind the doors of the church about to be entered by Patrick Tate. But as any seasoned viewer of revisionist westerns will tell you, churches are, first and foremost, places dominated by the kind of fire and brimstone rhetoric that will put the fear of God in the most recalcitrant of sinners; and this particular church in the town of Garlow, ruled with an iron fist and a lashing tongue by Preacher Pike (Danny Webb), is no exception. This is clear from the preacher’s announcement in an early scene that “we are a shining example of what a true Christian town can be” to an audience of dour-looking parishioners in thrall to his vision of a town finally purged of “drinking, gambling and whoring.”
This kind of purge is hardly suitable to the business of an undertaker, and Patrick, who represents the one skeptical face present at the sermon, will later confide his misgivings to his pregnant French wife Audrey (Déborah François), a far more enthusiastic follower of the preacher’s vision given her disgust at the “exploitation of vulnerable women” forced into prostitution in saloons. The clash between his desire to leave for the golden promise of California, a mere two months away by station wagon, and her contentedness to stay put and raise their children in a temperate town, are the first inkling of marital trouble looming in the horizon.
A more obvious kind of trouble arrives in the shape of once-off bounty hunter and habitual mayhem-maker Dutch Albert (played with gusto as a suitable grotesque by John Cusack) who is looking for a traitorous associate in the company of his sidekicks Dumb-Dumb (a wild-eyed and grunting Sam Lowyck) and an Italian named Fred (Blake Berris). Dutch Albert is the kind of verbose and hard-toiling villain who will never waste a chance to enter into a dastardly money-making scheme or coin a veiled but loaded threat. Luckily for him, his re-opening of the saloon in this stark and sleepy outpost of the California Trail provides ample opportunity for both.
Westerns often revolve around a territorial frontier that keeps shifting to suit material needs but, in their dramatization of the impact of invasion and settlement, with its attendant civic and moral tug-of-war, they offer a far shiftier kind of psychological and moral frontier. The resplendent epic appeal of the classic western was displaced by the murkier anti-epic of the western in its twilight years (Unforgiven being a masterful example of the latter.) Kavanagh has been tempted by this moral richness and he ambitiously attempts to use familiar tropes of the genre to comment on contemporary concerns.
Kavanagh paints Patrick as an outsider who has only joined the Puritanical congregation seeking the acceptance of a community who, deep down, in the words of Dutch Albert, consider the Irish “a bunch of rats.” The film is set in 1849 at the tail end of the Famine but uttered in the thick of the current migratory crisis it seems devised to echo Trumpian rhetoric. In a similarly anachronistic and unconvincing manner, Audrey is sketched as a sort of proto-feminist heroine but the inevitable and escalating tension between Patrick and Dutch Albert is staged around her body as the symbolic site for masculine rivalry.
In between smatterings of violence that on occasion seem devised to round up one of its heavy-handed political points, Never Grow Old moves slowly towards its resolution. It feels like a more eloquent film in quieter moments, not least because it allows the viewer to savour cinematographer Piers McGrail’s exquisite use of chiaroscuro. Kavanagh has chosen to match the moral twilight of his protagonist in a series of scenes shot at night time aided by McGrail’s virtuoso lighting. We are enveloped in such darkness for most of the film that when it finally came back to light, I had to shut my eyes for a moment, as if temporarily blinded.
At one point in the film, a much-diminished preacher stands outside his church staring at the debauchery inside the saloon at the opposite side of the road. The stark opposition of church and saloon in the scene is a visual representation of Kavanagh’s intention. Never Grow Old revolves around the destructive confrontation of religious zeal and bandit capitalism represented by the fanatic preacher and greedy saloon owner. In the midst of this rivalry, we are meant to root for the plausible everyman played by Hirsch, but neither the script nor the actor can fully sustain the character and by the time he finally makes his stance, he has become another casualty in the war waged between them.