Jared Moshe has a thing for graves. His debut, Dead Man's Burden (2012), which unfolds in the wake of the Civil War, opened with a murder and a funeral, and took place almost entirely on a single homestead surrounded by tombstones. The burial that occurs close to the outset of the writer-director's sophomore western, the 1889–set The Ballad of Lefty Brown, involves not a corpse but a firearm -- the closely cherished rifle of one Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), a beloved but old-mannered rancher who, just before his death, had been elected senator of Montana. Bidding adieu to Edward's legacy is the underestimated Lefty Brown (a furry Bill Pullman), Edward's right-hand man of some 40 years, who was there at the moment the senator-to-be was shot clean through the head. Now, in the lonesome Montana twilight, Lefty promises payback.
Unlike Dead Man's Burden, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a traveling movie, with Lefty canvassing the land for clues as to the whereabouts of Edward's vicious perpetrator (Joe Anderson). The rambling narrative allows Moshe opportunity to bask in the West's as-far-as-the-eye-can-see vistas, which he and cinematographer David McFarland -- shooting on 35 mm and relying largely on natural light -- capture in sumptuous glory.
Moshe relates his tale of can-do vengeance with an unfussy clarity and an obvious fondness for the oaters of yesterday's Hollywood. What elevates The Ballad of Lefty Brown is the peculiarity of the hero, an oddball full of contradictions and charms. Pullman ambles through the role gently, garnering easy sympathy as a seemingly unintelligent man whom people trivialize and "who" -- in Lefty's words -- "never got anything right." But Pullman cuts no corners in depicting the man's soft-spoken mysteries.