Country music star Trace Adkins continues to carve a niche for himself, along with several notches on his six-shooter, as an imposing presence in indie Westerns with his persuasive portrayal of a tarnished lawman in “The Outsider,” an unusually dark and brooding shoot ’em up capably directed by genre specialist Timothy Woodward Jr. (“Traded,” “Hickok”).
The movie itself, a deliberately paced, pared-to-essentials oater that clocks in at a lean and mean 86 minutes, might ruffle the feathers of traditionalists — i.e., the very people usually clamoring loudest for Westerns these days — who are easily upset by salty language, coarse behavior and other R-worthy elements in this unrated, family-unfriendly feature. But even those folks likely will appreciate the way Woodward and screenwriter Sean Ryan have respectfully recycled conventions and archetypes from sagebrush sagas of ages past without a trace of snark or satire, and added more than a smidgen of the fatalism that fueled many of the revisionist Spaghetti Westerns.
Adkins gets a great deal of mileage from his trademark growl and hulking physicality as Marshal Walker, a small-town peacekeeper who’s begrudgingly but unshakably loyal to his son James (Kaiwi Lyman), an unstable dirtbag with a taste for rough sex, because he promised his late wife that he’d always look after their errant son. That loyalty is sorely tested, however, when James rapes and inadvertently kills the wife of Jing Phang (John Foo), a railroad worker (and lethally effective martial artist) who isn’t nearly as forgiving as the marshal.
Strictly speaking, Adkins isn’t the hero of the piece. That role is filled partly by Foo, who speaks softly and carries a swift kick, and Sean Patrick Flanery as Chris, a cynical tracker hired to lead the marshal’s posse in a manhunt for the vengeful Jing Phang after the newly widowed railroad worker kills several other deputies with his bare hands in a barroom fracas. (Danny Trejo drops by for a fleeting cameo as a bellicose deputy who helps convince Chris that, hey, maybe he should shift his allegiance.)
But Adkins dominates every scene in which he appears, and quite a few in which he doesn’t, through dint of his ability to slow-drawl dialogue with the authority of an Old Testament prophet. When, early on, he walks into the aforementioned barroom and surveys the body count, he rasps: “You expect me to believe one man did this? One man? One unarmed man?” At that point, Adkins effortlessly grabs the movie and stuffs it into his pocket.
There are a few well-staged shootouts, and some brutally effective moments of hand-to-hand, foot-to-face combat. For the most part, however, “The Outsider” moves along at a portentous pace, not a swift gallop, as near-constant rainfall and Pablo Diez’s grimly evocative cinematography enhance an overall tone pitched somewhere between melancholy and mournful.
It’s almost as though Woodward and Ryan decided to pull the scenario of a ’50s or ’60s Hollywood Western inside-out, and focus on the undercurrents of tragic loss and implacable fate that here are allowed to reach flood level. Adkins’ marshal repeatedly prays for God’s forgiveness as he goes to extremes while trying to protect his son from Jing Phang’s righteous anger. There comes a time, however, when he looks at James and offers stern judgment: “You’re beyond saving.” Too true, but too late.