Apr 12, 2020


You don’t see much of the western anymore, especially in the low budget direct-to-video world. A combination of waning audience interest in the genre and the costs of shooting a period film have mostly to do with this. It’s nice when the western is still trotted out from time to time, but it’s even nicer when that western comes courtesy of a filmmaker who is clearly trying to do something more than just the usual shoot’em-up that appeals to the lowest common denominator of the genre. In the same way that very good and very bad horror films can enjoy similarly quiet releases, Gone Are the Days proves that the western can suffer the same obscure fate.

What’s readily apparent right off the bat is that Gone Are the Days is borrowing from the Unforgiven mold, arguably Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece as a director, in that it's another take on an aging cowboy reckoning with the sins of his past, confronting his mortality, and embarking on one last mission. Gone Are the Days at least adds a twist on this simple formula by borrowing from another, and less likely, source: Martin Scorsese’s little seen 1999 drama Bringing Out the Dead, in which Nicolas Cage plays a frazzled paramedic psychologically haunted by the ghost of a girl he wasn’t able to save, and with whom he occasionally interacts. This offers Gone Are the Days a bit of poignancy and meaning beyond your aging cowboy being a cowboy and doing typical cowboy things. At least as far as the western goes, this small Dickensian slice offers Gone Are the Days a sense of its own identity, even if it’s basing its plot on a well worn concept.

From now until the end of time I will tell anyone who listens that Lance Henriksen is the most undervalued actor alive. The man bleeds talent in every role he has ever played, even if the last two decades of his work have been relegated to quiet genre titles no one ever sees (his “alimony movies” as he calls them). To mainstream audiences, he’s belovedly known as Bishop from Aliens and a handful of sequel appearances. To cult audiences, he’s Frank Black from Millennium and Ed Harley from Pumpkinhead. To action audiences, the villain from Van Damme’s Hard Target. This list goes on and on, into every genre there is and with every kind of character played. Regardless of the quality of those films, I’ll guarantee Henriksen’s performance was high-tier in every single one. So as he steps into the William Munny shoes of the aging (and dying) cowboy Taylon, Henriksen not only embodies the character but also pays respect to his entire career. (He played a cowboy three times in 1995 alone: Gunfighter’s Moon, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Sam Raimi’s majestically dumb The Quick and the Dead.)  As to be expected, he’s superb here, as he is in everything else.

While the artwork presents the likes of Danny Trejo and Tom Berenger, neither of whom are exactly commanding theatrical releases anymore, don’t let that dictate what kind of film you’ll actually be seeing. Without getting into spoiler territory, let’s just say Trejo is used exactly as he should be in this kind of movie, whereas Berenger very comfortably slips into the role of a western lawman doing a fair bit of aging on his own. He doesn’t just play “the villain” because, except for a small role by cult actor Steve Railsback, there really is no villain. Because Gone Are the Days isn’t that kind of film.

The most impressive aspect of Gone Are the Days is its willingness to strive for something more. It’s very philosophical and even haunting in some ways, and it’s also very very old fashioned — from its musical score to its final shot. As a film it’s not a total success, as the plot can become a little wayward at times, but the action is always moving forward, whether that’s noticeable or not. Henriksen, in a rare leading role, sells both Taylon’s weakness and resolve, and Berenger does strong work in his smaller part. While, of course, Gone Are the Days comes nowhere near the heights of Unforgiven, it’s still a fine and admirable film, one fitting for Henriksen’s storied career, and a nice reminder that small surprises like these can still be found in quiet releases. Gone Are the Days isn’t for everyone, but I would recommend that everyone give it a try, anyway. You might just be surprised, too.

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