A decade before he became a moustachioed fixture in small-screen westerns, a clean-shaven Sam Elliott starred in this quiet but respectable oater, a frontier love story exploring the complicated relationship between an outlaw and a sheriff’s wife. Featuring long stretches of silence and very little music, Molly and Lawless John is all about the energy that transfers between people thrown into close proximity at vulnerable moments. While Ellott’s performance is a bit obvious, blustery one moment and weepy the next, costar Vera Miles works a more nuanced groove, sketching various shadings of loneliness and naïveté before her character grows armor thanks to challenging circumstances. The tension between their different performance styles helps compensate for the generic quality of the film’s direction and writing. In many important ways, Molly and Lawless John fails to show viewers anything new, because the same sensitive-gunslinger dynamics permeate countless previous movies and TV shows. Yet the picture realizes its humble goals adequately, and the intimate narrative—most scenes feature just the title characters—helps conjure a degree of depth and warmth. Moreover, the storyline provides just enough complications to keep things interesting all the way to the grim but satisfying ending.
Captured following his participation in a violent bank robbery, Johnny Lawler (Elliott) gets thrown in jail by foul-tempered Sheriff Marvin Parker (John Anderson). Parker’s put-upon wife, Molly (Miles), is tasked with providing the inmate’s meals while Parker is away on business, and she finds herself fascinated by the handsome prisoner. Sharing his fears about being executed, he touches her heart, so she reveals painful truths about her loveless marriage. Convinced they’ve bonded, she helps John escape, and their next adventure begins. Revealing more would diminish what little surprise the film offers. Suffice to say that life on the run isn’t what either of them expected, especially when they happen upon a stranger in trouble and become unlikely caretakers for an innocent. Despite being a fairly gentle movie, Molly and Lawless John plays rough on occasion, as when John appraises Molly’s looks: “You ain’t much, but you’re a hell of a lot better than nothin’.” Moments like that one get to the core of what makes the picture (mildly) rewarding—Molly and Lawless John explores the limited choices available to both criminals and women in the Wild West, thereby telling a story with aspects of class and gender, rather than the typical Western themes of male identity and personal honor.
Molly and Lawless John: FUNKY