Sundance 2016: Why is ‘Outlaws and Angels’ Playing at Sundance?

Outlaws and Angels
Written and Directed by JT Mollner
U.S., 2016

It’s a simple fact that not every movie seen at Sundance is going to blow our minds and change the way we regard the human condition, that some films are just going to be middle of the road good, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with perfectly fine. What is infuriating is when you come across a film that is so bafflingly awful that it just causes you to repeatedly ask yourself one question the entire runtime – “How the hell did this film get into Sundance?” JT Mollner’s Outlaws and Angels just makes you wonder how bad the other submissions to the festival must have been that this was deemed worthy enough to screen.

The plot, as messily as it barely comes together, follows a group of outlaws led by Henry (Chad Michael Murray) on the run after robbing a bank as they hide out in the home of the Tildon family as a night of betrayal, violence and mayhem takes place while lawman Josiah (Luke Wilson) trails them.

For what it’s worth, Chad Michael Murray does show up to work, trying his best to adopt a requisite gruff of the western outlaw, and Francesca Eastwood has a certain shine in her as Florence, the youngest daughter in the Tildon family who outsmarts her way through the night. Luke Wilson is awkwardly miscast, and Mollner’s script forces the audience to endure painfully insincere voice-over of Wilson pontificating on the nature of man and violence.

Before the screening, Mollner proudly revealed they had filmed the production on Kodak 35mm and professed his belief in film as an art form. It’s nice he wants to keep film alive, but Outlaws and Angels doesn’t do much to defend it. While Mollner and cinematographer Matthew Irving attempt to craft a throwback feel to the messier westerns of yesteryear, they just end up crafting a western that feels half-assed. They never take advantage of the landscapes they film in, nor do they do anything half-way inventive or unique with their framing and camera movements. This is a film, made on film, by filmmakers who don’t know how to actually use film. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film on 35 mm that looked so cheaply made. If anything, Outlaws and Angels is proof that shooting on film isn’t a guarantee in better quality.

Mollner’s script mistakes several vulgar and violent acts – sodomy, incestual rape, headshots (with noticeably awful special effects) and spousal abuse – as things that make his film adult and edgy by mere inclusion, yet never uses them to crescendo to any sort of thematic or cinematic resolution or realization. It’s just ugly, irresponsible and unearned at each turn. The sound editing in this film is atrocious. Half the dialogue is just muffled out, while the score sounds like something made straight out of Garage Band. For a moment I considered that maybe it was just the theater that had bad sound, but I had seen enough films there to know that wasn’t the case. Outlaws and Angels is like watching a two hour high school student film that somehow got funding and actual actors, but not even by a good high school student filmmaker. It’s painful, boring and an absolute waste of time.

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