Ruth McNally reviews Ivan Kavanagh’s Western starring John Cusack, Emile Hirsch and Déborah François.
The sold-out closing film of this year’s Film Fleadh was Never Grow Old, a dark and gritty Western, written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh. Kavanagh and some of the Irish cast and crew were in attendance on the night. Kavanagh described the film as the “Western he wanted to make”. He had begun writing it almost ten years previously but noted that it felt like the right time to make the film now as many of the themes feel very relevant to current times.
The film centres around Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), the local undertaker in a small American frontier town. The town is a pious community, a “holy town” effectively run by the Preacher (Danny Webb). Alcohol, gambling and prostitution have been prohibited and judgement is rife should you step out of line with the town’s imposed morals. Patrick Tate and his French wife, Audrey (Déborah François), consider setting off towards California as they struggle both to fit in and make ends meet.
The quiet existence of the town is unreservedly changed upon the arrival of the outlaw Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his two cronies. Arriving to the town in search of a wanted man, they decide to stick around and set up shop. They forcibly reopen the saloon, recruit some reluctant prostitutes and with that, the Wild West is back. Dutch Albert takes a special interest in Tate, asking him to facilitate a “private burial”. The threat of the gang and the fact that his family are struggling forces Tate to take this opportunity and henceforth they form an uncomfortable business relationship.
John Cusack is almost unrecognisable in his manner as Dutch Albert – he fills his scenes with a quiet but palpable menace. The character is both erratic and strangely moralistic in his way, appearing to be taking Patrick Tate under his wing as an immigrant – and therefore an outsider – in the community. The hypocrisy of this “holy” community is referenced throughout the film, particularly as people rejected by the church start desperately turning to Dutch Albert for work. The law does not wield much power in this town – the sheriff is an ineffective character who bends to the will of the preacher. The two extremes of religious purity and hedonism are the forces at odds with each other and the only sources of power in the town.
Patrick Tate is an almost passive character, adapting to situations as they arise and only acting when something forces his hand. He appeases Dutch Albert while holding him in contempt. His fluctuating motivations in the story mean that he is not a clear hero. As he gets more deeply involved in Dutch Albert’s dirty work, the voice of reason comes from his wife Audrey, played by Déborah François. She is a sympathetic and endearing character and while Tate becomes more dubious in his morality, Audrey becomes the character that you root for. One of the more uncomfortable aspects of the film comes from the threat against Audrey from Dutch Albert’s tongueless henchman Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who leers at her a cold, quiet, violence throughout. The anticipation created around this violence adds a sense of dread that permeates the story.
The film is visually very impressive. Much of the outdoor scenes were shot in Connemara – an American frontier town was effectively created somewhere near Oughterard, Galway. The attention to detail in the production design, costume and set design means that everything feels authentic in terms of place and time. The Irish weather conditions do make an appearance in the form of the copious amount of mud visible in the film. These conditions are used to the filmmaker’s advantage as everything is built into showing the hardship of life in this town. The grey skies, rain and seas of mud are all part of the struggle of daily life and reflect the characters’ experience.
Never Grow Old is an immersive film – once you are in, you are in, for better or for worse. It shows frontier life at its most fantastically harsh, with characters that showcase the darker extremes of humanity. At the screening Kavanagh described it as an allusion to how America was “founded in violence”; the result is a convincing Western, with a good dose of grim and grit.
Never Grow Old screened 14th July as part of the 2019 Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July)
Never Grow Old is released in Irish cinemas 23rd August 2019
2019 | Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France | 100 mins