Mollner’s 'Outlaws and Angels' Trying Western Isn't for the Weak of Heart

Mollner lays out this harsh story and rubs our faces in it. It's raw and hurtful and the sting remains even after the last frame has faded from our retinas.

Outlaws and Angels

Director: JT Mollner
Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Francesca Eastwood, Teri Polo
US Release Date: 2016-01-25

At the core Outlaws and Angels isn’t about revenge or misogyny, it's about ambiguity. In JT Mollner’s very authentic looking wild West America, innocence and evil become not just two sides of the same coin, but two sides of the same coin that never lands after it's been flipped.

Beside the scenic landscapes shot outside of Santa Fe New Mexico, there isn’t much brightness in this film. It's a throwback to '70s Westerns with a edge that probably would have garnered it an X rating in that era. Unfortunately, not only have audiences become desensitized, but so have the ratings boards.

That said, there's something nearly Shakespearian about the transformations and intrigues that happen among a gang of bank robbers turned murderers, and the seemingly innocence preacher’s family whose home they invade for an evening on their way to escape in Mexico.The graphic violence and various forms of abuse and disregard for human life made me wince several times. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to finish watching the film after the family’s women are parsed out as desert.

But I pushed on. There'ss something of a car wreck mentality that clicks in, which is perhaps why we ever watch a tragedy. Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliet and a Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as Timon of Athen and Coriolanus. The tragedies inform in a different way, they comment on a moment when romance doesn’t seem the right note.

The audience must struggle constantly with what Judaism calls the yetzer hara, or the evil inclination. In Judaism, God is not the embodiment of good, but the embodiment of all things, both good and evil. People, made in God’s image, possess both the evil inclination and the good inclination. People must make the choice, and take the responsibility for how they act.

Henry (Chad Michael Murray) says several times that he and his compatriots aren’t murderers, but they have clearly murdered. They seem to have some Robin Hood complex going on, that makes them believe bank robbing isn’t overly immoral, and that because they are bank robbers, and the deaths they cause, no matter as collateral or direct intent, don’t represent their view of themselves in the world.

Meanwhile, George Tilden (Ben Browder), an attendant, overly better-daughter-dotting father and preacher, keeps serving up absolution to the outlaws, saying that he knows they are good men. Little do they know, that Tilden too requires absolution.

In search of these outlaws comes Josiah and his posse of bounty hunters. He's kind, protective and respectful of his team’s needs. When left alone, late in the film, after finding Ada Tildon (Teri Polo) catatonic on the steps of her husband’s church, he too gives into his yetzer hara much to the detriment of his soul and his life.

Once she appears, the center of the film quickly shifts to the pretty, young and precocious Florence Tildon (Francesca Eastwood) who's the smartest person in the room. She sees this serendipitous encounter with outlaws as a way to “get out of Dodge”, by seducing Henry. He becomes not just her lover but her protector when she reveals her father’s abuse to him. Eastwood does a very good job with what she is given, which, while Shakespearian in its tragedy, often comes off more as graphic novel adaptation in execution.

The lucky few leave the film early. For those who stay, as Sweet (Hinton Battle) sings in the musical Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, ‘Once More with Feeling’, “there's not a one who can say this ended well.”

Audiences and reviewers tend to compare Mollner’s work in Outlaws and Angels to Quentin Tarantino’s Westerns, and his propensities toward graphic violence in general. But Tarantino himself is the most astute student of film history, and its most ardent adapter. Although Outlaws and Angels derives from a long history of filmmaking, not to mention actual Western history, Mollner seems to use Tarantino more for permission than inspiration.

Modern art demonstrates that not all art need be beautiful, though Mollner’s eye does know the difference. While he occasionally pans the starkly gorgeous vistas of New Mexico, he chooses to focus on the dark interiors of a troubled home and its troubled hearts.

Unlike Shakespeare, who elevated the connection to the yetzer hara above the pit and aimed his observations at those in power, Mollner’s commentary is very much about regular people. The outlaws aren’t all evil, and the righteous prove far from pure. He doesn’t couch the narrative in myth or metaphor, he just lays it out and rubs our faces in it. It's raw and hurtful and the sting remains even after the last frame has faded from our retinas.

Outlaws and Angels drives self-questioning of what one might do in a similar situation -- what vice or secret about ourselves do we discount or deny that could erupt to haunt us in a moment of great need. When right and wrong balance, we can go on for a long time treading the narrow line, but when the balance shifts, and the straight and narrow derail into tumbling chaos, no one is safe, and no assumptions remain inviolate. Humans choose to not always be their better selves. Like the beasts the Bible gives us dominion over, sometimes we choose simply to survive better, which is far from the same thing.


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