A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2023


2023, R, 95 mins.

Nicolas Cage as Colton Briggs  /  Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Brooke Briggs  /  Clint Howard as Eustice  /  Abraham Benrubi as Big Mike  /  Shiloh Fernandez as Boots  /  Nick Searcy as Marshal Jarret

Directed by Brett Donowho  /  Written by Carl W. Lucas



The new Western drama THE OLD WAY has a very apt title.  

It's the kind of paint-by-numbers effort that utilizes just about every old and tired genre cliché imaginable and somehow tries to pawn itself off as something fresh and new.  

That, and - holy crap! - this is the very first Western feature film release to star industry veteran Nicholas Cage, who has astoundingly enough (and over the course of his long 40-year career) never put on a cowboy hat and saddled up for one of these types of films (BTW, yes, he did appear in 2022's BUTCHER'S CROSSING, which too was a Western and premiered at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, but to this day it has not been given a wide theatrical release).  All in all, I should be applauding (a) any Western that sees the cinematic light of day these days (it's really an all but dead genre) and (b) a Western with Cage and his unique brand of colorful eccentricity.  Mournfully, though, the actor all but lazily sleepwalks his way through most of THE OLD WAY, and the remaining film built around him is so dreadfully bland and watch checkingly formulaic that you have to wonder how the producers here ever managed to snag Cage in the first place (outside of a sizeable paycheck, I'm guessing). 

THE OLD WAY has a somewhat intriguing opening.  In the prologue we're introduced to Cage's Colton Briggs (yes, a very Western sounding name, if there ever was one), a ruthlessly cold hearted gunslinger/tracker that's looking to collect his payment for the delivery of a petty thief.  During the very public town hanging of the crook things go bad rather quickly and bedlam ensues, which leads to the remorseless Colton shooting a man in cold blood that was trying to save and protect his young son.  The story then flashes forward two decades and we're re-introduced to Colton as a fundamentally changed man.  He has shaved off his very awesome handlebar moustache, turned in his guns, and has gone straight, now married to the love of his life in Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and has become a father to his young daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).  Colton appears to have given up bounty hunter and killing for good and now runs a shop in a nearby town.  When Brooke's school has been cancelled for the day she pleads with her father to let her tag along with him to the shop for the afternoon, which he begrudgingly agrees to. 

Of course, if you've seen a dozen or so - if not more - Westerns involving a once bloodthirsty murderer that later tries to leave that life behind to one of marital normalcy then you'll know that cruel fate will step in to lure this man back into a world of violence.  While Colton and Brooke attend to their store, poor Ruth is left back home on the ranch and is suddenly approached by a goon squad lead by James McCallister (Noah Le Gros), who has a very specific reason for coming to and later terrorizing Ruth and her home.  It appears that - yup - James was that kid who had to once watch his papa die in his arms because of Colton shooting him dead in that aforementioned prologue, which led him to seeking out what he sees as comeuppance on the man that ruined his life.  He proceeds to viciously murder Ruth, and when Colton and Brooke return home they're greeted by U.S. Marshall Jarret (Nick Searcy), who has the difficult job of relaying what has happened to this family while also reassuring them that James and his gang will be brought to justice.  Unavoidably, Colton has a hard time believing that the law will do anything right by Ruth, so he decides to shake the dust off of his guns and engage on his own manhunt for James' posse so he can deliver his own brand of justice.  Colton's thirst for revenge is complicated by the fact that his oddly emotionless daughter - who doesn't seem to have too much of a sad reaction to her mother dying - wants to join her dad and help him on his mission.   



Again, let's talk about the initial cool appeal of Cage being in a Western...finally!  Just the thought of a wild-eyed and unhinged Cage finding his footing in this genre has so much unbridled promise that's hard to overstate.  Plus, he's coming off a relative late career renaissance with incredible film appearances in MANDY, PIG, COLOR OUT OF SPACE, and last year's profoundly meta and hysterical THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT.  So, one of the industry's most idiosyncratic performers of all time in a Western...yeah...sign me up!  Unfortunately, it becomes very clear and very early on in THE OLD WAY that the Oscar winner seems barely awake throughout much of the story.  Sometimes, I can certainly appreciate it when Cage skillfully underplays a role (but, to be sure, I do like me some Cage in full freak-out mode), but Cage is so hopelessly guilty here of just listlessly inhabiting scenes with the most minimal of efforts required to be even audible on camera.  That's one of the many crushing disappointments with this film, and Cage in it kind of reminds me of the same type of vacant and barely-there payday grabbing performances that Marlon Brando did so many times late in his career. 

What's perhaps an even bigger letdown in THE OLD WAY is that writer Carl W. Lucas and director Brett Donowho truly fumble the ball when it comes to a potentially fascinating character dynamic between father and daughter.  On a superficial level, Colton and Brooke teaming up has definitive TRUE GRIT vibes, and the film leans into many elements of that film for good measure.  But one essentially different angle present here is that it's clearly hinted at that Brooke might be on the spectrum and has clear cut signs of Autism.  She demonstrates this with her insatiably meticulous desire to separate all of the colors of jellybeans on display in her father's store, but then later she's also emotionally empty after her mother is murdered.  It's not that she was too shocked to cry, but rather that she doesn't really know how to feel or process said feelings.  Even more interesting is that Colton himself displays similar levels of being incapable of having a teary eyed response to his wife being brutally taken from him.  So, we have a Western about a father and daughter that are both probably Autistic during a time when science didn't have a firm grasp on the condition at all...and they're also on a revenge filled hunt to find and murder the killer of their wife/mother respectively.  Now that's a fantastic premise for Western, but Donowho and company don't ever seem equal to the challenge of examining all of the psychological complexities contained within the story.  Instead, they seem to use Autism as a lame scriptwriting device to explain away why Brooke can later carry a gun and impassively go on the prowl with her dad.  THE OLD WAY never commits to its thematic material in any meaningful or sizeable way, mostly because its makers are spending more time slavishly pilfering from the Western troupe playbook. 

And, yeah, there have simply been too many other better Westerns that have graced the screen and told nearly identical stories throughout the years, leaving THE OLD WAY feeling like it lacks any semblance of a personal identity.  If you get past the ever-so-fleeting novelty of Cage in a Western then all we're essentially left with is an empty shell of a genre piece, replete with phoned-in and mediocre performances (including Cage himself), woefully DOA villains (Le Gros never once makes for an effectively scary baddie, nor do any members of his roughnecks come off as memorably intimidating), an overall narrative on pure autopilot, and a genuine lack of stylistic ambition (filmmakers can have a field day embodying Westerns with incredible visual flourishes, but THE OLD WAY is so shoddily staged throughout that it adds to the overall tediousness of viewers struggling to make it through to the end).  And when the film does make it to a would-be explosive final climax pitting all of the pertinent players against one another it offers up very little, if any, cathartic punch or impact whatsoever.  To say that THE OLD WAY is a half-baked Western would be misleading.  Hell, its ingredients have barely been mixed together in a bowl well enough to be readily poured into a pot and then thrown in the oven for cooking.  Like an empty-calorie knockoff Diet Coke version of UNFORGIVEN and TRUE GRIT well before it, THE OLD WAY tries to be a player as the real thing, but brings next to no taste or flavor at all to its efforts.

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