By: Anthony Francis
Director Nicholas Barton’s new Western “Death Alley” begins with a dichotomy. The opening credits roll as authentic Old West photography of dead outlaws roll by like a grim slideshow. A proper opening for a film such as this one to be sure, but the Rock & Roll song played over the opening credits is a bit out of place.
As a Western purist, I do not want modern music in my “Oaters”. Do what you will over your end credits (I liked the choice of Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” for the finale of “Young Guns II”) but keep the authentic feel of your film throughout. That said, the opening design immediately grabs our attention.
“Death Alley” tells the story of the last days of The Dalton Gang, as they set out with gunfire-tinged vigor to be bigger outlaws than the infamous Jesse James and take his place as the territory’s most notorious criminal.
As we are introduced to the gang, they sit around the campfire planning their insurmountable task of robbing two banks in one day. This did occur on October 5th, 1892, in the town of Coffeyville, Kansas and it have the Dalton’s their place in history.
Tensions are high and infighting is strong amongst the men. The brothers are frustrated with their place in the world of the outlaw. Each one has an opinion that riles the other, but everyone’s anger comes from, perhaps, a bit of fear regarding their daring plan. All the while, the dedicated Sheriff Thomas (Mark D. Anderson) is on their trail.
The brothers are well cast. Emmet (Joshua R. Outzen), Bill (Justin France), Bob (Tristan Campbell), and Grat(Jake Washburn) all play their roles with zeal, giving their characters an authenticity where we believe they are, in fact, family.
As the narration tells us, “The lines between legend and history blurred.” Barton’s screenplay (which certainly takes dramatic license. All Westerns must.) works due to his focus on character. He knows the legends of the Dalton gang are legion, but the filmmaker crafts the men as real people rather than enigmas. Barton cares about what made these men tick and it shows in his well-drawn characterizations.
Director Barton has certainly seen his share of Westerns and knows what works.
The big robbery sequence is well-paced, as the tension builds like a lit fuse once the townspeople decide to fight back and protect their money. Shades of Walter Hill’s 1980 classic “The Long Riders” echo through the sequence where the gang is trapped inside the town that becomes a gauntlet of deadly gunfire.
Like any good film about outlaws, when the Dalton’s are trapped and it looks like they won’t make it out, we begin to feel for them and hope they make it. These men are thieves and killers but damned if we don’t root for their escape.
Shot in Wichita, Kansas, Barton refuses to let his low budget stand in the way of the authentic feel.
While some of the hairdos and facial hair designs may be off by a hundred or so years and there is one small misstep in period design (in the film’s finale set in 1931, don’t look too closely at the modern ceilings or windows!), most of the film has a good grasp on authenticity. The costumes and the town look lived in and Andy Humble’sholster and gear designs are old-style craftsmanship.
Barton’s film falters here and there. Some of the dialogue does not sound “of the period” and the supporting cast that populates the town all seem like they don’t know what to do. Each one stands around to the point where we can see them waiting for direction.
The two biggest mistakes come on the music and the final moments.
The modern Country Rock songs are dreadfully out of place and, when played, take away from the proper Western feel. They are truly an unwanted distraction.
In the final moments, we see the surviving Dalton grow into old age with a wife and a career beyond his outlaw days. Out of nowhere, his wife breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the camera, then moving into an unnecessary flashback regarding one of the brothers. This moment is badly done and breaks the flow of the entire finale.
Beyond its issues, “Death Alley” works. Barton digs intohis subject and gives us an exciting film about an outlaw gang whose story does not get enough cinematic retelling.
This is more than a “shoot ‘em up”, but the film is populated by plenty of guns-a-blazing Western action.
In a time of so few Westerns, “Death Alley” is a good one.