he new western "The Outsider" is highly
predictable, very cheesy, and yet manages to entertain without a single ounce of
shame. Based on what was probably a sappy frontiers romance novel of the same
name by Penelope Williamson, the film has been adapted by Jenny Wingfield and
directed by Randa Haines ("The Doctor"). Set in the West circa 1880s,
"The Outsider" tells of a young widow and her son as they are
befriended by a seasoned gunfighter who literally stumbles into their life
bleeding to death.
The film stars Naomi Watts ("The Ring") as
Rebecca Yoder, a member of a small band of religious people called the Plain
People. They call themselves that because they are, well, rather plain in every
way, including dress, thought, and spirituality. (The contemporary equivalent
would be the Amish.) As the film opens, Rebecca's husband is unjustly lynched by
an Evil Cattle Baron and his evil henchmen. You see, the Plain People happen to
legally own a lot of land, which doesn't sit well with the Evil Cattle Baron,
whose family has been raising cattle on that same land when it was still wild
but had never bothered with all those fancy schmancy paper ownership thingy.
It doesn't really matter. The film's feud between the Plain
People and the Evil Cattle Baron are nothing more than backdrop. Forgettable,
and laughable backdrop at that. Wingfield's screenplay is most interested in
enticing viewers with the burgeoning love story between tough-as-nails
gunfighter Johnny Gault (Tim Daly) and Naomi Watts' single mother. To prove
where the film's real focus is, the movie spends nearly 40 minutes of its nearly
two hour running length to show Rebecca's growing interest in Johnny as she
nurses him back from a gunshot wound. (The film never relates how Johnny came to
be stumbling onto Rebecca's property bleeding like a stuck pig, if you were
There is also an attempt, ala Harrison Ford's
"Witness" (about a cop who hides out in an Amish community), to create
tension between Rebecca and her community, with Johnny's "outsider"
presence being the spark. Since the Plain People have all kinds of nutty rules,
just by being alive and living inside Rebecca's house (even though he's
supposedly "working" for her), Johnny has broken every one of those
rules. The rest of the Plain People are shown as rather silly, what with all
their silly rules, hats, beard, and singing and whatnot. Again, the Plain
People's background is just backdrop to the real story, which is Johnny
and Rebecca's love affair.
"The Outsider" is a Romance first and everything
else is background noise, plain and simple. The whole Plain People vs. Evil
Cattle Baron feud is actually not much of a feud, since the Evil Cattle Baron's
henchmen shows up every 20 minutes or so to scare the pacifist Plain People,
shoot some of their sheep (or sometimes them), and disappear for another 20
minutes. Throughout, Haines focuses on the growing attraction between Johnny and
Rebecca, and really, that's all the film should have been about. Who needs a lot
of loud gunfire to ruin a perfectly good love story?
Despite is highly derivative nature, the film's two leads
still sell the movie with earnest. Naomi Watts is absolutely radiant as the
innocent but tough Rebecca, who carries on valiantly after the brutal murder of
her husband. Watts is naturally beautiful, and dressed "plainly" or
not, she's still a sight to behold. The boy playing her son Benjo is essentially
playing the same role that all kids play in these Cattle Baron vs. Homesteader
Westerns, going all the way back to "Shane", and probably even further
back than that.
Director Haines does well to provide a lot of long, loving
looks of her glowing leading lady, even though she has an equally dashing
leading man. Tim Daly is surprisingly very effective as the hardened gunfighter,
not to mention appropriately handsome, tall, and brooding. Despite the fact that
the name of Daly's character sounds like every romance novel leading man's name,
Daly gives a terrific turn as a man who has known violence all his life, and
realizes without a shred of doubt that he doesn't deserve a woman like Rebecca.
Their growing attraction is handled well, and both actors are up to the task of
falling love. (Gee, what a hard job for Daly.)
I would spend some time talking about the co-stars, but
what's the point? No one else has anything remotely approaching a well-developed
character besides the two leads, and it's most apparent when they burst onto the
screen to ruin our little Romance movie. Again, who needs a lot of loud gunfire
and talks of shunning and whatnot in a movie like this?