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Gunless (2010)

by on 2012/06/06

“Tell me, is the entire country insane, or is it just this town?”

* * *

At first, Gunless reminded me of the CBC radio series, Canadia: 2056. Both feature a Canadian actor as an American “stranger in a strange land”. But whereas the latter is science fiction, the former inhabits the western. And being a product of the Great White North, unsurprisingly, comedy’s central to both.

Paul Gross (Passchendaele) stars as Sean Lafferty, also known as The Montana Kid. Left for dead, he gets as far as Barclay’s Brush before finding anyone who will help him.

He has unknowingly crossed the border into the Dominion of Canada. As far as the subtext is concerned, he may as well have entered The Twilight Zone.

All manner of Canadianisms are manifest in the small town: the health care is free, the saloon is divided into French and English halves, and finding a pistol is more trouble than it’s worth. Though the Kid rails against the locals and their conventions, they’re unimpressed with his bluster, practically unafraid, polite, and helpful. I thought of The Simpsons Halloween episode — 1995’s “Just Don’t Look” segment — where ignoring a threat helped defuse it. I found it interesting to watch a character whose stock in trade is unease himself made uneasy by his hosts’ relentless manners.

Of course, it might seem an easy crutch to lean on such cultural cliches, and yet it’s hard to be too critical of the practice. English Canadian films can’t compete on production value alone. They must differentiate themselves in other economical ways, in this case with elements rare in the genre, like humour and nationalism.

Familiar faces appear in various roles: Graham Greene (Duct Tape Forever), Sienna Guillory (the Resident Evil series), Tyler Mane (X-Men), and Callum Keith Rennie (Last Night). Also familiar are the sound of songs by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, who also does the instrumental score.

Visually, it looks quite good, if almost a bit too slick. The scenery is great, the composition works, but it’s distractingly bright at times. I understand thematically we’re not trying for Unforgiven, however the visuals are so well-lit, it sometimes felt made-for-TV.

Still, my biggest problem was not with production, rather with the “hero”. My issue is twofold. First, The Montana Kid is unlikable, nearly to the end. While I don’t want to spoil the climactic events, I’ll say only I didn’t care for his actions. I try in vain to tell myself he’s reverting to roguish ways, yet it bothered me all the same to see his arc thus interrupted.

Second, the actor playing him is not unlikable enough. Paul Gross is everything Sean Lafferty is not: charismatic, healthy, and unweathered — narrative-driven arm scars notwithstanding — and more so after he’s cleaned up and redressed. Gross does a good job acting the part, and he’s got an effective growl . . . he’s just too recognizable and charming to convince me.

Truth be told, I found less to fault than I feared. The rarity of home-grown westerns had me bracing for clumsiness. Instead I was happy to find Gunless a light-but-satisfying character piece, funnier than expected, and even gently political. This CanCon oater knows its place, to its benefit, and to ours.

* * *

Rated PG

89 minutes

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