The 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 wondering.)
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 its 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?
Randa Haines (director) / Penelope Williamson (book), Jenny Wingfield (teleplay)
CAST: Timothy Daly …. Johnny Gault
Naomi Watts …. Rebecca Yoder
Keith Carradine …. Noah Weaver
David Carradine …. Doctor Lucas Henry
Thomas Curtis …. Benjo Yoder