What’s left for Nicolas Cage to do? Having begun his career with a rogues’ gallery of offbeat weirdos, transitioned into megaplex action star, settled into a variety of character roles, and most recently tapped into his own idiosyncratic iconography with the comically self-reflexive The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it seems like the mercurial actor has enjoyed not just one career, but several. Approaching 60, he’s never fit into a single archetype (like some of his generation) but instead perpetually sought new tales to tall. And here he is, kicking off the new year with something he’s never done before: a Western, unironically titled The Old Way.
The Old Way‘s story is notable first and foremost for being as unironic as its title. Modern westerns frequently skew toward the revisionist, feminist, hybrid, or self-reflexive modes, looking for ways to keep this creaky old genre alive for the grandkids of moviegoers who first thrilled to the exploits of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Not The Old Way, nosiree Bob. It is as old-fashioned as a 1940s John Ford oater, if nowhere near as expressive or accomplished. And yet, the old ways of The Old Way still manage a certain charm.
Cage himself adds little to the proceedings other than a squint he must have borrowed from Eastwood (who attributed his scowl to his hate of cigars) and a stodgy gait that belies his still-quick trigger finger. He says little, stares often, and pursues his revenge with a methodical exactitude borne of an apparent spectrum disorder. The plot borrows from the classics (Shane and The Searchers, for two) with its external threat to the pastoral familial homestead. In a brief prologue set 20 years before the main action, a gunslinging Cage shoots down a young boy’s father with a single bullet between the eyes, setting the stage for the boy-turned-adult to seek his own revenge on Cage’s character.
In those 20 years, Cage’s Colton Briggs has become a respectable, if distant, family man, husband to Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and father to 12-year-old Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), with whom he shares several subtle markers of being on the autism spectrum. When James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) and his gang come looking for Briggs, Colton and his daughter become unlikely allies in a double-revenge plot, with Marshal Jarett (Nick Searcy) in pursuit of them all in the name of justice. If that plot sounds like any of a hundred Westerns of generations prior, so be it: The Old Way is comfortable in its old duds.
In fact, the film’s dedication to traditionalist Western tropes borders on the slavish. The film’s score comes straight out of the classic era, with big, brassy orchestration interrupted by some chipper banjo plucking for the traveling scenes. The few, simple gunfights are punctuated by simple spatial logic rather than whizbang effects. There are no Peckinpah-inspired slo-mos or Sergio Leone three-way standoffs here.
One might wonder why, if vengeance was so important to McCallister, he couldn’t find more than one able-bodied lackey to assist him. His right-hand gunman Boots (Shiloh Fernandez) has an accurate aim and the Laredo-style duds you saw Timothy Olyphant don as James-Stacy-playing-Johnny-Madrid on the set of Lancer in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. But Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi) adds little other than a gravelly voice to the McCallister gang, and Clint Howard’s poor Eustice seems to exist for no reason other than to get kicked in the balls and punched in the gut. Le Gros at least musters some Armie Hammer-style smarm with his good looks and gleaming smile.
Meanwhile Searcy—you remember the ever-exasperated Marshal Art Mullen on Justified—is as avuncular as ever as the pragmatic Marshal Jarett, dispensing his own Solomonic brand of frontier justice. And young Armstrong, as Brooke, becomes crucial to the story and the film. It’s not quite the breakout role afforded to thirteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit or ten-year-old Julia Butters in Tarantino’s latest, but it’s an excellent performance that gives the film a bit of a heart—and a surprise ending.
It’s a good thing, too, that Armstrong and Searcy deliver the goods. The Old Way doesn’t really have much new to say otherwise, except for considering how a father and daughter with a common disability find themselves at odds with society and, for a time, each other, before learning what they can accomplish in common. Even if The Old Way is curiously, perhaps even morbidly, bound to tradition, its classical approach is one longtime fans of the genre can still appreciate.
Directed by Brett Donowho from a script by Carl W. Lucas, The Old Way debuts in theaters January 6, 2023 and on Premium Video on Demand and Premium Digital January 13, 2023.