The Oscar-nominated actor has saddled up for director Michael Feifer’s gritty western drama.
Bruce Dern is back to being a bad guy in the Wild West.
And the John Wayne fans who still resent the twice Oscar-nominated actor for playing the sneaky varmint who killed The Duke’s upright good guy in The Cowboys (1972) — well, they’ll probably continue to hiss and moan while watching him in Last Shoot Out, director Michael Feifer’s entertainingly old-fashioned western that’s currently available in theatrical and digital release, and will be released Tuesday on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Dern makes the most of his every moment on screen here as Blair Callahan, the most demanding and despicable leader of an outlaw clan this side of Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine. As the movie begins, we learn that Jody (Michael Welch), Blair’s simple-minded son, has somehow managed to marry Jocelyn (Skylar Witte), a small-town beauty whose lawman dad recently died. But on their wedding night at the Callahan ranch, Jocelyn overhears a disturbing conversation between Blair and Sid (Cam Gigandet), the old fellow’s smarter and more sinister offspring. Both men agree that Jody might not, ahem, rise to the occasion that evening, and Sid might have to fill in. Worse, Blair refers to Sid’s killing of Jocelyn’s father to keep the lawman from arresting Jody for murdering a “floozy” in town.
Understandably upset, Jocelyn flees the Callahan home, and eventually crosses paths with two travelers bound for a remote stagecoach station: Red (Peter Sherayko), a grizzled fellow transporting a wagon of supplies to the outpost, and Billy (Brock Harris), a taciturn stranger on his way to a date with destiny of some sort. They wind up taking the runaway bride to the presumptive safety of the station. Naturally, it doesn’t turn out to be a very safe at all.
Blair soon arrives at the station with Sid, Jody and a bunch of hired guns to retrieve Jocelyn by any means necessary. And if anyone rises to her defense? “Go kill every goddamn one of them,” the old man commands. “Leave no one alive.” Dern can snarl that sort of dialogue like nobody else in the business.
Don’t misunderstand: The widely respected Hollywood veteran doesn’t limit himself to parts that call for murderously bad behavior. Indeed, Dern has played a notably diverse array of roles throughout his career, and especially since his Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance as a cantankerously naïve father in 2013’s Nebraska (35 years after he earned a Supporting Actor nod for portraying a damaged Vietnam War vet in Coming Home).
Among the recent highlights on his resume: The ailing but wily Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. in Chappaquiddick (2017); two key supporting roles for filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, in The Hateful Eight (2015) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019); Myles, the blunt-spoken wrangler in charge of the wild horse training program at a Nevada prison in The Mustang (2019), which earned Dern a C&I Movie Award for Best Supporting Actor; Richard Smythson, a dementia-plagued artist struggling to remember how to create in The Artist’s Wife (2019); and Reginald Cooke, an aged and regretful Civil War veteran who’s slowly dying while his loving daughter (Mira Sorvino) provides palliative care in the C&I Movie Award-winning Badland (2019).
And yet: Dern is just so good at being bad that it’s easy to understand why filmmakers still call on him from time to time to walk — or ride — on the dark side. I spoke with him about that, among other things, during a phone conversation a few days ago. Here are some highlights from our chat.
Cowboys & Indians: Good morning, sir. Always happy to hear the sound of your voice.
Bruce Dern: Oh, man, that’s very nice. Thank you. I don't know why it makes you happy, but…
C&I: Well, I know this sounds like I’m stroking you. But we’ve chatted a few times before, and it’s always nice to be talking with one of the pros.
Dern: Well, I appreciate that. I remember that we’ve talked before, and I appreciate that every now and then, you get somebody to talk to who gives a shit. And you give a shit. And that’s nice, particularly when I’m 85 and people still are interested in watching my work and behavior, if you will.
C&I: And like most of the pros, you’re too modest by half. OK, let’s talk about Last Shoot Out. To ask the obvious question: What drew you to this project?
Dern: The guy who directed it was a good friend of the guy who produced and starred in Badland, Kevin Makely. And so, he said, “Jesus, Bruce will work on a little movie like that. Maybe he’ll do my movie.” And the thing that floored me about that movie was — did you see how good Trace Adkins was? I never even knew he was an actor.
C&I: Well, I spoken with him a few times as well. And he’s even more modest about his acting than you are.
Dern: Well, there’s one thing about Trace. I’ve always judged people a certain way. And that is, can they fill a doorway? Trace Adkins has a persona that fills a doorway. Like Charlize Theron — she can fill a doorway.
C&I: That’s high praise indeed, considering she won an Oscar for the film you did together, Monster.
Dern: Well, Trace Adkins has that. He may have no self-confidence in himself, but Jesus Christ, he has a presence. And he was very good in [Badland]. I didn’t have any scenes with him, but when I was shown the movie, and I saw it, I said, “Who the bleep is that guy?” [Laughs] And then I said, “Oh, that’s the guy who finished second on the Donald Trump show [The Celebrity Apprentice].”
C&I: Getting back to Last Shoot Out: What did you enjoy most about making the film?
Dern: Well, this was the first time where I was kind of a throwback to a character you’d see in a lot of the movies they made when I was growing up and watching movies. Where Lionel Barrymore or somebody like that was the head of a family. And the family went to range wars, or whatever they were, in the old westerns. In this case, I was head of this family, and I knew that my kid didn’t have a lot of game, like the way I wanted him to have. And I had a feeling that this girl probably wasn’t wrong in the decision she made to run off. But my kid was going to get his day in court, if you know what I mean. Simply because that’s the math that went down in those days.
C&I: As I’ve said, he reminded me a lot of Walter Brennan in My Darling Clementine.
Dern: You got it. Now, for your trivia: In what movie did Walter Brennan play my father?
C&I: Oh, come on, that’s easy — Support Your Local Sheriff!
Dern: [Laughs] But no one ever remembers the movie, I don't think. Do they?
C&I: Are you kidding? Look, just a couple years back, when C&I drew up a list of the best westerns or 1969, not only was Support Your Local Sheriff! on the list — it was in the Top 10. And I've shown it to my film students in the Jack J. Valenti School at the University of Houston. Some of them didn’t know much about the history of westerns — but they thought you were hilarious. And they thought the movie was hilarious. Oh, no sir. No, sir. That movie lives on. And that’s largely because of you, and James Garner, and Walter Brennan…
Dern: Well, not only that, but Jack Elam wasn’t half-bad either, right? And I’ll tell you something. She wasn’t a close friend of mine, but she was a friend. I quite liked her. I thought she had a chance to have a wonderful career. And I did two movies that I played a little part in, and she was the female lead in. Both were westerns. One was Will Penny with Charlton Heston. The other was Support Your Local Sheriff! And I’m talking about Joan Hackett.
C&I: What a wonderful actress. Gone too soon, gone too soon.
Dern: Oh, man. And she never saw 50. And that face. She was pristine. You know what I mean? She was pristine.
C&I: Finally, what do you remember as the best compliment you’ve ever received in your career?
Dern: Well, I’ve had two or three outstanding compliments in my career, but one involved Lena Olin, who was my co-star in The Artist’s Wife. Every day, we were in the East Hamptons. And so, her husband was with her there. And he came up to me one day and said, “Would you mind if I just hang out on the set every now and then to watch you and Lena do your stuff together?”
And I said, “No, be my guest.” And he said, “Because I've never seen what you do before. I mean, we never know what’s coming from you. And as a director, that puzzles me, as to how I can dance with that.” [Laughs] And I said, “Well, you did a pretty good job with Michael Caine for Christ's sake in The Cider House Rules.”
See, Lena is married to Lasse Hallström, so that’s why he was on the set every day. But he did do a good job with Michael Caine, to get him to pay attention to what he was doing. Michael Caine is a fabulous actor when he wants to be — or all the time, really. I mean, I’ve never seen him phone it in or anything like that. But this was coming from someone who had directed him. So I enjoyed that compliment.