Sometimes it can be fun to watch a skillful band cover songs. Tony Tost’s Americana is precisely that: an ode to the drive-in B-movie which in turn influenced filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who in turn influenced a generation of filmmakers making quirky violent ensemble films with scrambled chronologies. What’s new is old again and Americana, influenced by films from the 1970s, feels more like a film from the 1990s with notes of Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and the Kiefer Sutherland-directed neo-noir Truth or Consequences, N.M. The result, thanks in part to a compelling cast, elevates this material past the cinematic equivalent of the local dad band playing Springsteen covers at the corner bar on a Saturday night.
Americana is divided into chapter. In the first, “Old New West,” we’re introduced to Cal (Gavin Maddox Bergman), a caucasian boy who grew up near the local reservation and has become obsessed with Native American culture, looking up to Sitting Bull rather than colonizers. In a twist that will be explained later, his mother Mandy (Halsey) leaves her partner Dillon (Eric Dance) to flee back home.
The second chapter introduces us to lonely rancher Lefty (Paul Walter Hauser) and a shy waitress, Penny Jo (Sydney Sweeney, channeling Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Terrence Malick’s Badlands). He’s unlucky in love, proposing to any woman who will see him for a second or third date with the same speech: “I have a nice house, a strong back, and a heart full of love to give.”
These quirky characters intersect with Roy Lee Dean (Simon Rex), the local sleaze ball who hires Dillon and his henchmen to steal a rare, priceless artifact––a Lakota Ghost Shirt––from a collector. Things, of course, don’t go according to plan and Lefty, who overhears the plan in the local diner, starts conspiring with Penny Jo, who’s looking for her ticket out of town. Naturally, she’s an aspiring country singer trying to reach Nashville.
Things go awry when Cal and Mandy find themselves in the middle of Dillon’s business and Cal wanders off to the reservation, meeting with local gangster Ghost Eye (Zahn McClarnon), who adopted his name, he admits, in part from his affinity for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. While Americana isn’t like the Scream films where the players know all the rules up front, the comparison emerges.
Writer-director Tony Tost knows the lyrics and has assembled a great cast, but his film falls short on execution, delivering a fairly generic B-movie that doesn’t quite elevate its material In a way we’d expect by 2023. It’s not that Ghost Eye lacks total agency as a hunter trying to take back the antiquity that rightfully belongs to his people, but it’s not exactly a portrait with nuance.
I suppose it comes down to how much Americana entertains. Studio executive Samuel Goldwyn would have resisted the urge to make every project an “elevated” film exploring an important issue, famously telling his filmmakers, “Pictures were made to entertain. If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” The film’s cast advances the film above a late-night B-movie, each having fun channeling the archetypes of the neo-westerns that came before (with Halsey rocking big 80s style hair, she would have fit right in with Isabella Rossellini in Lynch’s Wild at Heart). It’s a shame the villains, despite the casting of Simon Rex, are fairly one-dimensional, and that (whatever its misdirections) everything snaps into place just as you’d expect.
Americana premiered at SXSW 2023.