In the last few years, western thrillers have come back into the spotlight… you’ve got Bone Tomahawk (2015 – read our review here), The Revenant (2015), The Hateful Eight (2015), True Grit (2010) and Django Unchained (2012), and that’s just off the top of my head. I find them to be hit or miss, so I tend to walk into them with no expectations. So, when I first heard about Never Grow Old, I wasn’t sure what to think. Now that I’ve seen it, I have a lot to say.
Directed and written by Irish filmmaker Tin Can Man’s Ivan Kavanagh (read our interview with him here), Never Grow Old stars Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch (read our interview with him here), John Cusack (Say Anything 1989, Cell 2016 – read our review here), Danny Webb (Alien 3 1992), Tim Ahern (Lilyhammer TV series), Paul Reid (The Ritual 2017 – read our review here) and Déborah François (L’Enfant 2005). The film was produced by Nicolas Steil (Tremors 2019), and Marina Festré (Clash Of Futures 2018) and Parked’s Dominic Wright and Jacqueline Kerrin, with Piers McGrail (The Canal 2014 – read our review here) acting as the Director of Photography.
Debauchery. Greed. Murder. Welcome to Garlow. The once-peaceful frontier town is now a den of vice after vicious outlaw Dutch Albert and his gang arrived—and began gunning down their opposition. Undertaker Patrick Tate must choose between the blood money he makes burying the murderers’ victims and the threats he and his family face in this intense and gritty western.
Let me start by saying that Never Grow Old has been in the forefront of filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh’s mind since 2007. It was on December 5, 2007, that he got confirmation for a screenplay loan from Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board (now known as Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland). Ten years later – to the day! – Ivan and his cast and crew shot their first roll of film in Connemara, in west Ireland. Rather than giving the actors a finished script, Ivan gave them detailed character histories, and then talked with them about creating the character and how they should react to situations in the story. They were also encouraged to do research into the area and time period… 1849, along the California Trail, when the gold rush was happening, but before the Civil War, when most westerns take place. Both Emile Hirsch and John Cusack jumped into this process with both feet. This was such an intriguing way of creating a film that I just had to share.
The cold weather and location covered in 4″ of mud had a huge effect on the cast and crew. It helped to create the dark, troubled tone of the film while keeping them in the right mood for the time and setting. In our interview with Emile Hirsch, he talked a bit about the cold, muddy conditions, and director Ivan Kavanagh had this to say as well:
“Their performances, I think, were also aided by how harsh the filming conditions were, with the bitter cold and the deep mud, making them feel like they had been transported back in time, experiencing, just a little, of what these immigrants must have had to endure.”
The characters in Never Grow Old act and react according to their pasts, their backgrounds and what they know is over on the other side of the mountains. Coffinmaker/undertaker/carpenter Patrick Tate (Hirsch) came from poor Irish stock, and even among the other US immigrants, he’s considered a savage. He was used to being hungry and working hard to get by back in Ireland. The fact that he, his wife, Audrey (François), and their two children, Ella (Molly McCann: Sweetness in the Belly 2019) and Thomas (newcomer Quinn Topper Marcus), have created their homestead on the actual California Trail tells a lot about where Patrick wished he was headed. Early on in the film, he even pressures his wife to keep moving over the mountains to seek their fortune. This only touches upon his desire for money.
It wasn’t a surprise to see him quash his own morals and accept the friendship and employ of cold-blooded killer Dutch Albert (Cusack). With this outlaw in town, there’s plenty of coffins that need building, and this brings some serious coinage to the Irishman. He hides the money from his wife, but also tries to buy her expensive gifts, which she refuses. Audrey can see what kind of trouble Dutch and his cronies (Blake Berry: She’s Missing 2019, Sam Louwyck: Brimstone 2017 – read our review here), are bringing to their dry town. What she doesn’t know is that the lives of her and her children are also at stake, should Patrick not cooperate. If the money wasn’t enough, losing his family turned the undertaker over to the dark side. It’s a no win Faustian tale in the highest regard.
There’s also the aspect of immigration and emigration. Much like Patrick escaped from Britain-occupied Ireland, many refugees are still seeking safety and solace in America, with mixed results. But without the mass surge to American in the early and mid-19th century, our country would not be what it is today. Something to think about for sure.
I love that Never Grow Old was about ordinary characters. There was a Sheriff Pike (Ahern), but he was either too afraid or too lazy to take care of the gun-toting Dutch Albert Gang. There’s also the Preacher (Webb), who was so stuck behind his Bible blinders that he couldn’t see the forest for the trees until the end of the film. But the coffin-making undertaker, the one character that is usually left as a sidenote or comic relief, was in the forefront of this story. There’s always others effected in these types of situations, so to see how someone else was impacted was quite refreshing.
However, Dutch Albert is a hugely terrifying presence. After a time of Puritan living, the people of Garlow had no idea how to react to this man, who towered over everyone, literally and figuratively, killed people as soon as look at them, and had with him two sidekicks who could not communicate – one only spoke Italian while the other had previously had his tongue cut out (which he carried in his pocket for safe keeping). He turned the people of the town to emotional mush, opening the saloon, bringing in whores (some of whom had no choice in the matter) and shedding blood like it’s water. They were afraid to not comply, and most of the townies broke the preacher’s teetotalling laws rather than take a chance with what Dutch would do to them if they didn’t. Even Patrick, who hadn’t had an alcoholic drink in his life (despite being Irish), began to sip spirits when Dutch was around. Dutch puts them all in a no-win situation, all for his own enjoyment.
I enjoyed Never Grow Old much, much more than I expected to. It’s such an intricate, well-told tale, incorporating many layers of characterization, anguish, fear, misery and disquiet. I loved how John Cusack was filmed from below and Emile Hirsch was filmed from above, making their height differences all the more apparent. I could honestly see Cusack’s Dutch Albert as a player for Randall Flagg/The Man In Black for the upcoming remake of The Stand. He was that intense. The dark, rich colors brought the cold and filth of the story right into my living rooms. The fact that the camera shots were pulled in tight to remind us that this is, in fact, a western wasn’t lost on me, either. I also loved the shot of the torches being dropped into the hole where Bill Crabtree (Paul Ronan: The Devil’s Own 1997). The scenes of Hirsch washing the dead bodies to get them ready for burial was almost heartbreaking, despite the fact that some of these men were criminals. This action turned them back into just men, and I actually felt pity for them and their broken bodies.
Last but not least, I have to mention Patrick’s accent. It’s become something of a joke in Hollywood that American actors cannot pull off a foreign accent without either consistently dropping it or going way over the top. I want to congratulate Emile Hirsch for working hard to make sure his accent sounded totally believable.
The film begins and ends with Patrick walking up the stairs of the church, his steps unsure, a burnt down building behind him still smoking. He seems awkward and nervous, definitely not your average hero-type. This was a great way to wrap the film up, tying it all together in a messy, muddy bow.
If you’re looking for gore or supernatural elements, you won’t find them in Never Grow Old. However, you will find a grisly, appalling story that could actually happen, back in 1849 and even today. Never Grow Old released on VOD and theaters on March 15th.