We’ve seen this character in Westerns before; from Sergio Leone to Carry On Cowboy; the small-town mortician scuttles in the shadows between the buildings, following in the wake of a violent protagonist as he shoots his way to grim justice. Often played for laughs, the undertaker is usually a bit-part player; Ivan Kavanagh’s violent thriller puts him centre stage in a strong, involving story about morality and money.
A flash-forward shows Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) entering a church, shotgun in hand. It’s an image that hangs heavily over the rest of the film, as the story uncoils to reveal his deadly motivations. Tate lives and works in the small frontier town of Garlow, populated by right-thinking, sweet-natured religious people until Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his gang arrive. They bring booze, and recruit child-prostitutes for a local brothel, and dish out death to those who stand in their way. For Tate, it’s a moral quandary, but also a business proposition; after all, he has a young wife (Déborah François) and hungry children to feed…
Never Grow Old has a timeless story, but also one that feels intensely relevant in 2019. Dutch Albert promises a better life, or at least a more moneyed existence, but at a high cost. Tate has the option of keeping his head down and not acknowledging where the cash is coming from, but it’s inevitable that his supping with the devil will lead him to the moral awakening of the final confrontation. Faith in capitalism is one thing, but it doesn’t allow entrepreneurs to operate in a moral vacuum. Kavanaugh’s story is suitably elliptical that it doesn’t have a specific political meaning, but all comers can take something away from the picture of a world where the good guys are hamstrung by trying to do the right thing while the bad guys run roughshod over the rules.
What makes Never Grow Old really worth switching your phone off for is the acting; Cusack has travelled some distance from his pretty-boy rom-com image, and he adds a personal best performance amongst the gallery of villains he’s played. Dutch has a touch of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, volatile, off-key, oozing menace behind a blank stare. He’s well-matched by Hirsch, also a teen idol who has conjured up the grit required to gravitate to bigger things; his good looks work against his character’s moral weakness, making something complex of Tate; Hirsch’s Jay Sebring in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood brought him back to public notice, but Never Grow Old shows he’s still a first-rate lead. François also deserves credit for taking a familiar character and giving her a hard, sympathetic edge as she begs her husband to recognise that the source of their good fortune is also their undoing.
Shot in Luxembourg and Ireland, Never Grow Old is a handsome, well-mounted Western in the old-tradition; it’s the kind of film that might have genre fans standing in supermarkets examining the case, wondering if this is any good; it is good, the kind of tough, thoughtful film that’s increasingly hard to find but easy to recommend.