One of the earliest shots in The Outsider is protagonist Jing (Jon Foo) raking through wet mud with his fingers. Fitting, for it is a film that drags you through the dirt of the Wild West. Timothy Woodward Jr. does deserve praise for delivering a Western that is more reserved, yet brutal and thought-provoking. The intent is there. The execution is not.
The overly-recycled plot is a bad start, as if Woodward’s unique approach demands the reassuring anchor of a familiar story. Jing’s wife is brutally raped and murdered by the local Marshal’s son. The grieving widow sets off on a violent quest to avenge her death and kill anyone who stands in his way. This kind of storyline has been seen many times. At one point you can’t help but feel that this is what The Crow would be like with a bit more yee-haw. Sean Ryan’s script regularly sticks well and has underlying commentaries on racism and male violence, but with such a predictable arc they do not demand the attention that they should.
The film is often shot in peculiar ways that, again, prevent you from taking everything seriously. Woodward and cinematography director Pablo Diez love their facial close-ups. At times it feels less like a film and more of a mugshot reel. When you do get whole-body-shots, Woodward’s commitment to moody darkness makes most of the good action hard to see. The final brawl in particular suffers from this, turning what should be an atmospheric finale into a dull, wet cowboy vest competition. Uncomfortably, the one thing you do see in some detail is the rape scene, which you can’t help but feel was not a necessary addition.
All the odes to the oldest genre in cinema are there – swinging saloon doors, spitting, rootin-tootin’ Wild West hard eggs, and masculine showboating. The Outsider, asides Jing, does not spend enough time on… well, the outsiders. The Chinese railroad slaves. The women who seemingly exist only to please the men. Their inclusion means more time is needed to look at them with more depth, but they are afforded little attention within the breezy 86-minute running time. The Outsider is neither long nor sophisticated enough to satisfy old and new fans of the genre.
The relationship between the marshal (country singer Trace Adkins) and his son (Kaiwi Lyman) is narrative arc that the script rightfully spends time on, a strained paternal relationship that provides a solemn, dramatic break from the main story. Cult action legend Danny Trejo is woefully underused (although he does get to call someone Gringo) and even the scenes of Jing with his wife feel underwhelming. Jing’s relationship with troubled tracker Chris does not get the time it deserves, even though Chris is so solidly brought to life by Sean Patrick Flanery in the film’s most likeable performance.
The Outsider has the occasional shimmer of thoughtfulness and detail, and these moments may make it worth a watch for Western fans wanting something different. That being said, slow-burner Westerns are hardly in short supply, and it just doesn’t hold up. The story lacks anything new, the filming choices are weird, and the characters fall short. Best advice is to ride out of town before the final shot.
The Outsider is available on Digital and Demand June 14th.