The Grey Fox: A Nuanced Character Study of the Turn-of-the-Century Outlaw (Review)
The Grey Fox reminds us why it’s a classic of Canadian cinema nearly four decades after its initial release.
I like westerns: I used to watch them with my grandfather when I was a kid, and being a white guy from the United States, I can acknowledge that I have adopted some of our cultural romanticism towards the old west. So when Kino Lorber slid a copy of Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox across my desk, I was excited to delve into this classic piece of Canadian cinema. While this film originally came out in 1982, Kino Marquee is releasing it with a 4k restoration, so I was excited to see how it would look. The Grey Fox follows the true story of Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth), an outlaw in the old west. He is released from prison after thirty-three years, but struggles to adapt to normal life in the early twentieth century, and quickly returns to his life of crime.
One thing I loved immediately about The Grey Fox was how beautiful it is. It’s not beautiful in the sense that it employs impressive cinematography techniques or exceptional lighting; it’s beautiful in that the scenery is stunning. I’m one of those people who really enjoy nature landscapes, and this film is a smorgasbord of wide shots of the pacific northwest, as well as symmetrical shots of things reflected in clear water at the base of mountains. I don’t know what these shots originally looked like, but in 4k resolution, they are absolutely gorgeous. Frankly, I could watch stuff like this all day.
I should also make note of the strong acting performances from the film’s cast. The late Richard Farnsworth delivers an exceptional performance as Miner, showing how the outlaw is forced to become part of a world he doesn’t understand. One of the best scenes in the film happens near the beginning, when Miner goes to an early cinema and watches The Great Train Robbery (1903). Without saying a word, you can see Miner reliving his past vicariously through the film, giving a subtle mixture of joy, longing, and melancholy just in his facial expressions.
Another standout performance comes from a young Timothy Webber as Fernie, a mountie who befriends Miner, unaware of his past crimes. Webber does an excellent job conveying Fernie’s inner turmoil when he realizes that the kind elderly man in his community may be a wanted criminal, and is torn between his duty to the law, and his duty as a friend.
Something modern movie goers should be aware of is that this film was definitely made for an audience of its time. While it is a western, those of you hoping for pulse-racing showdowns and shootouts in the vein of Tombstone or Django Unchained might be a little disappointed. The Grey Fox is more of a character study of Bill Miner’s twilight years as he struggles to maintain his outlaw ways in the backdrop of early-20th century North America. Instead of a typical three-act story structure, The Grey Fox is presented more as a series of events as Miner traverses Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in search of a dishonest day’s work.
This method of storytelling leads to a slower and more deliberate pacing, a far cry from The Grey Fox’s Hollywood counterparts. Most of the time, this slower pace works, challenging the audience to appreciate not only the nuanced performances of its actors, but also to truly appreciate the natural beauty I already gushed about. There are times, however, the pacing feels a little too slow, especially in the middle. The film is able to recover from this, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t lose my attention a bit near the midway point.
While most of the creative choices were effective and well-implemented, there was one that confused me: While I will be the first to admit that I’m not an expert on Canadian folk music, there were pieces in the film’s soundtrack that sounded Celtic to me. There are musical passages that place heavy emphasis on what sounded like panpipes and tin flutes playing jigs. Sonically, it’s nice to listen to and the energy matches the action on screen, but it’s not what I think of when I imagine the old west, and the cognitive dissonance would tend to take me out of the film.
The Grey Fox creates a compelling picture of an old man trying to find his place in a world that has left him behind. Bolstered by excellent performances and gorgeous landscapes, it’s a film worth seeing at least once. It may take a little while for modern audiences to adjust their expectations in order to fully appreciate it, but the ride with Bill Miner is a ride worth taking.
The Grey Fox‘s new 4K restoration will be released in Virtual Theaters starting May 29: click here for the full list of cities.
STREAM THE GREY FOX:
Be among the first to receive our monthly updates with film news, movie-inspired recipes and exclusive content! You’ll only hear from us once a month. #nospam