Gunless—Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory, Dustin Milligan, Tyler Mane, Graham Greene (2010; Dir: William Phillips)
This is another western in which the beautiful hills and mountains of southern Canada stand in for… the hills and mountains of southern Canada? Yes, this is a northern western, and a comedy. And it’s pretty successful as a western comedy. Now, this is a movie of which few have heard, so it didn’t make much of a splash on its initial release in 2010. It opened 11th in Canada, and as a Canadian-funded, Canadian-set and Canadian-made film, it would have been expected to do as well there as it could anywhere. Although it had a small budget ($10 million Canadian), it has good (not great) production values, decent writing, and, above all, good acting, especially in the leads.
As the film opens, a horse with a filthy rider sitting backwards and trailing a rope and branch slowly enters Barclay’s Brush, a town on the Canadian western frontier. As the horse comes to a stop, the rider slides off the horse upside-down, and it is apparent that he is tied up. After a brief conversation with a Chinese girl, he is extracted from his bonds and buys some bullets at the local store. He comes from the States, where he was in the process of being hanged. He is the Montana Kid.
Wandering back outside, he looks for his horse, which has disappeared. It turns out the horse is with the local blacksmith, who is fixing it up. There are words between the two, and the gunman calls out Jack the blacksmith (Tyler Mane), who doesn’t have a pistol. After due consultation, a woman rancher, Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillory), offers the Kid a broken pistol in exchange for help putting up her windmill. And a medical alert: “Your bottom is bleeding.” The doctor removes a bullet from the Kid’s gluteous maximus, free of charge.
The Kid (played by Paul Gross, who was brilliant in the Shakespearean comedy series Slings and Arrows on Canadian television) slowly gets to know the townsfolk, who are rather taken with him, partly because of his dime-novel notoriety and partly because they seem to be genuinely friendly, if a bit quirky. The local Mountie constable, Jonathan Kent (Dustin Milligan), a very stiff and rulebound young man, comes round to meet the Kid and have him sign his ledger—with his real name, Sean Lafferty. Kent’s cosmopolitan Indian guide Two Dogs (Graham Greene) has to redirect him a time or two. The Kid is invited to dinner at the doctor’s house, and regales them with tales of his killings, eleven of them. Everybody calls him Sean—a name he apparently hasn’t used for years.
Rapacious and loathsome bounty hunters, and N’kwala, otherwise known as Two Dogs.
Meanwhile, he’s on the lookout for pursuit from the States, bounty hunters who have been after him for ten years. He plans to leave as soon as his horse is recovered, his deal with Jane is complete and he fulfills his obligations as a gunfighter by having it out with Jack the blacksmith. Meanwhile, he attends an RCMP dance where Kent seems enamored of Jane, and the rest of the Mounties are not so enamored with the Kid. As they try to intimidate him by beating him up, he is rescued curiously by the stiff Kent, who points out that the Kid has broken no laws and has no outstanding warrants in Canada, and that is not the Mountie way.
His clothes are being cleaned and repaired by the local Chinese tailor and laundryman, and meanwhile he’s wearing Chinese clothes around town. He takes part in an evening of intellectual discussion about Aristotle led by the local schoolmarm, Alice. And he thinks it’s time to leave when Jane shows signs of falling for him.
Jack has repaired a broken piece of the pistol (a big old Navy .44) and given it to the Kid, even though he knows the Kid plans to use it to force him into a gunfight. And the bounty hunters draw ever nearer and demonstrate their lack of character by gratuitously killing a dog. The question is not really whether they’ll catch up, but what will happen when they do.
The shootout is surprising, as are Sean’s new philosophical misgivings about his lifestyle, apparently triggered by Aristotle. As the movie ends, we see young Kent’s romantic attentions turning to Alice, the blushingly receptive schoolmarm.
The humor is dry Canadian, not broad Mel Brooks. This might be the closest thing to the Support Your Local Sheriff movies made by James Garner in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not as quickly paced as those, and the humor is quieter. The pacing and the tone are not perfect. It should have a better title. Given Canadians’ sensitivities about their larger neighbor to the south, you can see why a Canadian production would not want to call itself The Montana Kid. But that is its title in Australia, and it works better.
With all this, Gunless is very worth watching. It depends on Gross’s ability to project confused decency under filth and to develop believably and sympathetically, and he is charmingly up to the task, even if he occasionally mutters his lines. His horse performs well as a confidante with a mind of his own. And Sienna Guillory is fine as the feisty rancher Jane, with a lovely British accent. This movie deserves to be much more widely seen. Be sure to watch the outtakes with the credits; they contain some dubious language that was missing from the film, though. Filmed at Fort Langley, British Columbia. Short, at 89 minutes. The DVD of this film was recently (Dec. 2013) on sale at Amazon for $3.62, and it’s hard to beat that.
It may or may not be significant that the writer-director of this movie is William Phillips. That is also the name of a man in Spokane in the 1920s and 1930s who was rumored to have been Butch Cassidy, returned from Bolivia and not killed by the Bolivian army.
William Phillips of Spokane, and William Phillips of Canada. What is the beard hiding?
For a younger Paul Gross in a made-for-television romance set in modern Alberta, see Getting Married in Buffalo Jump.