Review: “Outlaws and Angels,” Starring Chad Michael Murray, Francesca Eastwood, and Luke Wilson

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then writer-director JT Mollner really adores Quentin Tarantino. The filmmaker’s latest, Outlaws and Angels, is an attempt at a bloody, filthy Western in the style of QT, but it falls short of success. There is some clever writing here and some impressively bloody visuals, but Outlaws and Angels is too predictable in its gore to make a real impact.

The violence begins in New Mexico in 1897, where a group of bank robbers has left bodies behind after their latest crime. With a dead government official on their hands, the band decides to cross the border into Mexico: leader Henry (Chad Michael Murray, still making me swoon all these years after One Tree Hill), brutally practical but unfailingly polite; wild card creep Charles (Nathan Russell); and slow-witted big man Little Joe (Keith Loneker) survive, while two other robbers die during the escape.

Does the group have a moral code? Henry objects to Charles’s uncle beating his wife, and he makes a big fuss about it when the couple drops off supplies for them, but he still has them both killed to make sure they don’t talk. Violence against women seems to Henry’s only sore spot, but otherwise, he’s an everything-goes kind of criminal, with the scars and the gravelly accent to prove it.

While they try to make it out of Mexico, the group is chased by bounty hunter Josiah (Luke Wilson), a man seemingly exhausted by the life he’s led. The pursuit is difficult as the group goes into rougher and wilder terrain, but the $8,000 bounty keeps Josiah going—and his  musings about the nature of good and evil are used as voiceover narration during the course of the film. “Where’s it all begin? How’s it start?” he wonders of violence. Josiah says he’s “looking forward” to using his axe again, but as the search continues, men abandon his cause—and his musings about the nature of the world get more and more disjointed.

Meanwhile, without food and water, Henry and Co. grow increasingly desperate until they stumble upon a farmhouse and a chapel, inhabited by the Tildon family: preacher George (Ben Browder), Bible-obsessed wife Ada (Teri Polo), older daughter Charlotte (Madisen Beaty), and younger daughter Florence (Francesca Eastwood). Something is weird about the family—there’s vicious bullying of Florence by Charlotte, and a strange rivalry between the two of them when it comes to the attention of their father George—and everyone’s secrets start unraveling when Henry and Co. show up.

It’s clear from the get that Florence is very, very different from her abusive family (“Women ain’t allowed to do nothing in that book,” she complains about her parents’ reverence for the Bible), and when Henry arrives—smelly and dirty, but polite and respectful to her in a way no one else is—it’s clear there is a seismic shift to her alliances under way. But how far will the schism between the outlaws and her family go? What truths will be revealed? And what kind of actions will go down as a result of those truths?

The answer is, of course, lots of bloodshed; Outlaws and Angels is practically soaked in splatter, but a lot of is shot and designed quite well. When the robbers are introduced, each one is silhouetted against a blood-red backdrop, their fabric masks creating a garish contrast. There are pulsing, distorted synths playing when the outlaws make their way through the dying countryside, a tension-building audio exercise that marks their descent. And the script gets zany every so often, delivering laughs with Henry’s disgusted “I don’t know nothing about Jesus” and his Florence-directed compliment “You just as fine as creamed gravy” and a running gag with Ada shrieking in high-pitched agony whenever anything related to sex is mentioned in her home.

But there are also flaws here, both narratively (a constant reliance on rape as a plot device, with every female character abused in some way) and otherwise (Murray’s accent slips into the unintelligible quite often, so he’s more grunting than talking; a piano interlude plays during a few extremely violent scenes, and it gets repetitive quick). Despite some memorable moments and good turns from Murray and Eastwood, Outlaws and Angels mimics Tarantino’s style but can’t quite capture its magic.

“The innocence or the darkness, which are we?” Josiah asks; Outlaws and Angels goes too heavy on the latter, to its own detriment.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs