A film review by Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
Babe, Pricilla Queen of the Desert, The Matrix (all three in the series), Finding Nemo, Mad Max, Rabbit Proof Fence, Strictly Ballroom, The Wolverine, The Lego Movie, Mission Impossible 2, Breaker Morant, to name a few. All shot in Australia. I have seen all of them, except The Lego Movie. Forgive me.
There is another Australian film that Outlaws brought to my mind, On The Beach (1959). Both are apocalyptic and dystopian, a popular mix nowadays. American Outlaws draws its catastrophe from the ruinous trauma within a family, while On The Beach derives its catastrophe from the breakdown of society. Neither a good thing yet public hunger for these subjects continues to sell a lot of movie tickets (except when Covid was raging).
On the Beach has a small group of survivors in search of the meaning of their lives amidst the realization that they are soon to die from exposure to nuclear radiation. The genesis of their awful fate is not from blood relatives as it is in American Outlaw, where family has grossly damaged two brothers and their sister. Both films, however, feature the drive to survive when the going is not going anywhere but down, and maybe out.
The ‘outlaws’ are the Dougherty “gang”: poor, rural whites emblematic of “social classism” in America. To make that clear, we see a lot of run down trailer homes on parched land festered with the detritus of wrecked appliances and cars. The gang is two twenty-something brothers with their Lolita-like younger sister.
Outlaws is drawn and dramatized from a true story of family hell, with its patina of normalcy and its legacy of three scarred, desperate children. They want to flee their fate but trauma already has seared their minds and brains. The film was written and directed by Sean McEwen, after a story by Kathie Dobie published in Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ).
In the outlaw gang the middle child, Ryan (Sam Strike), empty handed and dreamy with his mirage of being a dad to his soon to be born son. And Lee-Gracie (India Eisley) with too tight short shorts, too much cleavage, and addled by the pills she eats like candy. Dylan (Emory Cohen) the oldest, at 16 ran away from home - breaking his pact: “one for all, all for one” - with his sibs. He wants to fulfill his unmet promise to create a safe and decent life for his brother and sister. Financing his promise will take money, which banks have but not him. Dylan has become the engine powering their armed bank robbery and multi-state flight from the FBI.
Don’t mistake American Outlaw to be a want-to-be Bonnie and Clyde: it’s without that film’s glee and massacre. It is Lee-Gracie who clues us in that their adventure is not about pursuing the ends (money) but rather about the means – to be a family once again, the three (now) felonious musketeers.
With bags of money and an arsenal to protect it they head for Mexico in their beat-up car. But escape is not their forte, perhaps not their aim. Their brief stops along their road trip humanize them, as their kindly ways emerge with a bank client and petrified families. I suppose how they wish they had been treated.
After several states, little rest, and even less nourishment they arrive in Colorado, for the mountains that Lee-Gracie coveted. But her loose talk at a stop with an older couple who took them in for a meal gives away their new destination. The vise tightened. Local and state law enforcement led by a sorry pair of FBI agents (Treat Williams and Cory Hardrick) close in. A fleet of flashing lights and sirens soon traps the Dougherty gang on a lifeless stretch of highway.
When you have nothing (and imminently will have far less), it has been said, you have nothing to lose, as must have been the Dougherty credo. They grab their automatic rifles, pour out of the car, and start firing at scores of other guns. But theirs was not the blazing finish as I imagined it would have to be.
On the highway with no escape they had no angel on their side. But they had been revived from the walking dead by their bond with each other. They survived.
If you view this film try to keep track of its elements, including family trauma; family bonding; loyalty and promise; the desperation born of having no prospects for a future; robbery and mayhem, the “law” and a cardboard chief in a high speed car chase after the sorry old Dougherty car; and the abandon and excitement of shooting at cops. Like Dorothy, they want to fly over the rainbow. Instead the rain came.
This ensemble of actors and ideas entertains, disturbs, and makes all-so-human those fated to lives no one would want - yet is about everywhere we look. Enjoy the show, even when it makes you uneasy.
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor and non-fiction writer. Look for his next book, late this fall, about the collision of traditional American medicine with our new era of the corporatization of medicine, displayed by the story of saving a Harvard hospital. www.askdrlloyd.com