Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a Western, even if it’s a half-assed attempt at one using all the tropes that the genre has at its disposal. But at some point, I have to draw the line, and today that line is the latest work from director Brett Donowho (Acts of Violence), The Old Way, starring the ever-present Nicolas Cage in his first-ever Western (I will give the film points for that). Working from a screenplay by Carl W. Lucas, Cage is Colton Briggs, a cold-blooded gunslinger who opens the film killing a man in front of his son and simply walking away. The film jumps ahead 15-20 years, where we find Briggs has shaved his beard and become a respectable family man and the owner of the local general store, with wife Ruth (Kerry Kruppe) and 12-year-old daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who may follow in her father’s footsteps more than he would like.
One day when Colton is at the store with his daughter, four men come to his home and confront his wife about his whereabouts. The gang is led by James McCallister (Noah Le Gros), who turns out to be the little boy we saw in the opening shootout and has come seeking revenge on Briggs. After bravely attempting to escape, Ruth is captured and killed by the gang (who include members played by Abraham Benrubi, Shiloh Fernandez, and the legendary Clint Howard), leaving Briggs angered and eager for revenge, despite warnings from Marshal Jarret (Nick Searcy) to let him and his men find the outlaws.
After contemplating killing his own daughter to keep her from seeing what he’s about to become, Briggs decides instead to take Brooke with him on his hunt and teach her of his murderous ways before meeting Ruth and turning his life around. What he doesn’t realize until their trip together is that, like himself at a young age, nothing seems to scare Brooke or make her emotional; she doesn’t even cry after seeing her dead, blood-soaked mother, and this makes Briggs (and the audience) realize that she’s probably a sociopath, but also ripe for the kind of bounty hunter work that Briggs was once a part of. This breaks his heart, and he does what he can to instill some level of emotional depth in the girl, but his own contribution to her bloodline makes that unlikely.
The Old Way is a curious mix of a psychological profile and a familiar Western, with only the scenes of father and daughter bonding really resonating in a way I wasn’t expecting. Beyond that, however, the villains in the piece aren’t that interesting, with only Le Gros showing any signs of the necessary insanity that it would take for a man to track down another man for years the way he has. But even his performance grates on our nerves after a while, as he delivers speech after speech instead of being a man of action. He needs to make his point before he carries out his revenge—we get it.
Armstrong’s take on Brooke is fascinating, and director Donowho makes it clear she will never be a damsel in distress at any point in her life, including as a child. The girl is eager to learn, harder on herself when she fails at something, and fully aware that something about the way she’s built is broken. But rather than let that slow her down, she uses it against anyone who makes the fatal mistake of underestimating her. If any part of the film works for you, it’s likely because of this unique character. On the other hand, Cage is largely going through the motions, except in the scenes with Armstrong. I’m convinced if he’d been a bit more invested in this thinly written gunman character, The Old Way might have been a much better film. Even still, it’s not a complete failure, and those who take a look at this work just to see Cage in a cowboy hat riding a horse will certainly get their money’s worth. There’s also a hint of charm to the piece, so take that for what it’s worth.
The film is now open in a limited theatrical release and will be available via VOD and digital on January 13.
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