The Old Way (2023) Review
The Old Way was directed by Brett Donowho (Acts of Violence, Hell Girl), written by Carl W. Lucas (The Wave, Illegal), and stars Nicolas Cage (Primal, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent), Ryan Kiera Armstrong (Firestarter (2022), The Tomorrow War), Noah Le Gros (The Beach House, 1883), Shiloh Fernandez (Torn Hearts, Big Gold Brick), Abraham Benrubi (Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Christmas Bloody Christmas), Clint Howard (Beyond Paranormal, The Church), Nick Searcy (Terror on the Prairie, Greater), and Kerry Knuppe (R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned, Counter Clockwise). It follows a gunslinger and his daughter as they track down the man who killed the wife/mother of the respective characters while they reconcile their pasts.
The Plot: With close to a century of filmic entries, the western has played host to just about every story that could stand to fit into its parameters. Lucas plays to the genre’s tropes, keeping the story mild without ever being uninteresting.
At the hanging of a man he had captured, Colton (Cage) breaks up an escape attempt by the man’s posse, putting the criminal down in front of his young son who he was trying to protect in the heat of the battle. It’s a decent setup that allows for hatred to brew, and over two decades, it does. Since then, Colton has been made into a family man, with his wife Ruth (Knuppe) and daughter Brooke (Armstrong) becoming his life’s purpose.
While the father and daughter are tending to the family store, James (Le Gros) and his lackeys, Boots (Fernandez), Big Mike (Benrubi), and Eustice (Howard) incidentally kill Ruth and use it as an opportunity to let Colton know that the past hasn’t been forgotten.
Lucas’s script goes down one of the many well-trodden routes in which Colton and Brooke track down the killers to a quiet, faraway town through some contrived means. In place of a grander vision, The Old Way offers a subplot involving the town’s authority figure, Marshall Jarret (Searcy) trying to control the conflict which comes back around by the time the inevitable showdowns occur. There’s no need to blaze a new trail here; the script isn’t challenging, but it is competent enough to manage its main and subplots without dawdling as others do. Don’t expect much and be satisfied.
The Characters: Plotting may be pedestrian here, but the core of The Old Way lies in its lead characters, which are an eclectic and motivated bunch all around. Cribbing from other notable features remains, but the characters all have their own personalities.
Colton would be a typical anti-hero if he had any emotions about what he used to do for money, but he doesn’t. Every contract, capture, and kill was just a job, and the mentality remains even when his last one comes back to bite him. He’s almost mechanical as he navigates conversation and interaction as fast as possible – even with his loved ones. It’s clear that he still loves his family but has trouble expressing it. Cage plays him as though there’s something else going on inside his mind, and it eventually shows through his actions as he almost takes some surprising turns which show just how far he’s willing to go once he has a goal.
Unexpectedly for these kinds of movies, Brooke takes more cues from her father than her mother; similarly stilted and detail-oriented, she doesn’t fit the typical mold of frontier females in which they’re a mess outside of the homestead. She spends much more time reading than anything else. Because of several similarities, there’s a disconnect between her and Colton, making her lessons in killing an odd but believable bonding exercise.
Admittedly, James and his gang aren’t as convincing as villains. The Old Way has them perform the typical vicious killing and pillaging, and there’s an obvious motive to the gang’s leader, but the men around him don’t seem to have much connection to him outside of a lockbox full of loot that serves as their secondary goal. Some brushing up would’ve given an equal foil for the strong and eccentric leads, though all the actors carry their weight, sans Howard.
The Drama: Almost every western worth its salt is just as much a morality tale as it is a revenge, love, expansionist, or revisionist setting. The Old Way tries to hit the required marks, and does so repeatedly, but can feel a bit one-note after a while.
Donowho put most of his emotional focus on the journey that Colton and Brooke embark on, and it’s easily the best part of the film. Riddled between the more literal trip to find the goons are scenes in which the father explains what and who he’s come to believe himself to be to a daughter that doesn’t know him enough to trust his word. A moral compass is absent, making the training exercises and merging of capabilities a worthy demonstration of a kind of relationship normally neglected in westerns. The actors and script never let this become a melodrama even when Colton’s startling pragmatism comes into the frame.
Conversely, the outlaws don’t have much to do for much of The Old Way. Once the family’s way of life is razed, they’re left to make their way down toward Mexico and wait for Colton’s inevitable arrival to try and get the edge over him. A few violent moments arise from near misses, including one in which a gang member squares off against the quiet ex-contractor, but there’s simply too much distance between the parties for much of the runtime for the rage to sear.
It’s a simple film of only two minds, but it’s a testament to Lucas’s understanding of an unconventional and well-thought-out scenario that carries the odyssey forward with moonlit bonding and a secure legacy.
The Technics: Forgetting cinema’s past is hard to do, and when there have been probably a couple of thousand westerns, stacking up a believable recreation of an increasingly distant period gets difficult. Donowho’s film isn’t a huge one, so it has its share of flaws, but competence is never in question.
Required in frontier stories is a good recapturing of centuries-old attire and setting. For The Old Way, this comes off surprisingly well thanks to a scenic shoot in Montana and production design by Tessla Hastings (Murder at Yellowstone City, What is Done), dressing by Laura Lovo (Into the Wild Frontier, Yellowstone), and costuming by Vicki Hales (Robert the Bruce, April Rain). Granted, everything looks a little too polished and clean to truly sell the period, but the frequent cuts to more natural establishing shots and faithful to forebearers’ camerawork from Sion Michel (Tony Bennett: An American Classic, Heartfall Arises) lessens the blow.
What doesn’t land properly is the score by Andrew Morgan Smith (Santa Jaws, You Might Be the Killer), which tries too hard to be epic in a story that’s much too personal for that to fit even if he was successful. Between the upbeat plucking and blaring brass, there’s a dissonance between the music and the rest of the movie; the major flaw that director Donowho mistakenly relies on during downtime. Even though it only runs 95 minutes, the simplicity of the film should’ve inspired a few minutes to end up on the cutting room floor as the movie runs out of things to process.
Not quite the rebirth of the western like many still yearn for, The Old Way is nonetheless a reliable retelling of the titular old ways with an odd relationship and strong acting at its center. Cowboy Cage fits the saddle well.