In a moment of loss C.S. Lewis noted that “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out.” He was considering his social circle, how he’d never again see Tolkien’s unique reaction to a deceased friend’s joke and the loss to their community. Everyone we meet changes us, if just for a moment. Are some changes indelible? Or are they gone forever when the other person leaves us?
Twenty years ago Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage) was a stone cold killer. Then he met Ruth (Kerry Knuppe), packed up his guns, and opened a general store. They had a daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who’s as unfeeling as her father and as conscientious as her mother. Unfortunately, the past comes calling when James McCallister (Noah Le Gros), the son of a man Briggs killed, shows up with his gang of outlaws looking for payback.
The McCallister Gang finds Ruth alone, corners her in a barn, and only then realize they’re on Brigg’s land. “That’s right,” she says, underlining everything we’ve just seen. “And I’m his wife. And you hit me in the face with your gun. Broke my arm. Shot his horse. You boys have woken up the devil.” We don’t see what they do to her. We’re just told that there’s a lot of blood.
The Old Way isn’t just a revenge story. A U.S. Marshal (Nick Searcy) on McCallister’s trail tells Brooke that her mother made Briggs a family man. “My mama’s dead now,” Brooke says. “Is my father still a good man?” We’re given reason to doubt. Knowing he shouldn’t pursue revenge as long as Brooke is still alive, Briggs considers murdering his child. “Mama wouldn’t like you pointing that gun at me,” she says without blinking.
So they hit the trail, and Briggs schools his little girl in the old way. Along with statehood, their home territory now has laws. But Briggs is a man from another era. The old way, his way, is frontier justice. Man to man. Will Brooke follow in her father’s footsteps? Or will she use her mother’s memory as a guiding light?
Though one could easily see James Stewart playing Briggs in a 1960’s version (Cage is weirdly subdued), this is a modern day R-rated B-western. Unlike in an old western, Christians are shown in a bad light and literally everyone spouts profanities and blasphemies. Though the violence isn’t constant, it is harsh. Most of the runtime is devoted to long conversations about the nature of family and how the people who come into our lives change us.
All the great westerns are about strong individuals building communities in the wilderness. This one, while not great, forces us to consider on a personal level whether or not we’re doing the same. (Lionsgate. Apple TV+, Amazon Prime)