Red-Headed Stranger

June 14, 2012

Willie Nelson has instant, effortless screen presence; he seems quite comfortable on film, and he’s physically unusual, with his weathered face adorned with its biblically curled beard and large, intense eyes.

Those qualities make Nelson an interesting person to watch. But his facility in the medium also lets him lay back; he appears content to coast on his magnetism. “Acting,” as we casually know it, does not enter into the process.

Nelson’s simple style, which conjures up an air of mystery, is well used in Red-Headed Stranger, a Western somewhat spun off from Nelson’s album of the same title. It’s an uneven film, but one that gets a lot more interesting as it goes along.

The first 50 minutes or so are misleading. Nelson plays a preacher who journeys with his new bride (Morgan Fairchild—no, really!) from Pennsylvania to a tiny Montana town. There we find a conventional clash of wills between Nelson, the evil fur-trapper (Royal Dano) who owns the town’s water supply, and the compromised sheriff (R.G. Armstrong).

All of that is no better than an average episode of “Gunsmoke,” but then the film takes a turn that shows the preacher to be an entirely darker character, and he becomes a self-willed wanderer until the opportunity arrives to redeem himself.

It doesn’t ever jell, but at least Nelson and writer-director Bill Witliff explore some interesting territory. Next time, let’s see them leave out the conventional stuff altogether.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Witliff had a run there, scripting The Black Stallion and “Lonesome Dove” and some other Nelson projects; this remained his lone directing credit. Willie Nelson really did have an intriguing presence, although how Morgan Fairchild got mixed up in this one is puzzling.