The Western genre is far from dead, but The Outsider might make you wish it were. The caricatures of characters, abysmal treatment of women, and nearly inscrutable plot make the movie an experience to be tolerated rather than celebrated.
The story is your typical revenge riff at first. Jing Phang (Jon Foo) has a loving wife (Nelli Tsay) and an idyllic life, if you entirely ignore the fact that he’s a Chinese immigrant and indentured servant building the railroad through the American Southwest ahead of the country’s western expansion. But hey, the guy is in love. When his wife is raped and murdered by James (Kaiwi Lyman), the power-drunk son of the local marshal (Trace Adkins), Jing sets out for revenge against the man who shattered his perfect life. While causing generalized mayhem in pursuit of James, Jing creates enough problems for the law that a posse of sorts is hired to go after the “chinaman.” Chris (Sean Patrick Flanery) is the leader of the gang, and for no real reason aside from additional screen time, he’s always fighting with his colleague, Carlos (Danny Trejo). As James, Jing, the marshal, and the posse all close in on one another, the drama crescendos and we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned Western showdown.
The plot could be serviceable for a straightforward throwback Western, but The Outsider keeps tripping over itself. The film starts with Jing burying his wife, only we don’t know that’s what he’s doing until we move forward and backward a bit in the timeline. The cinematography is also distracting. Dutch angles and obvious calls to potential action are dropped into scenes, but to such an alarming degree that it feels like an example of how not to use them in a traditional narrative film. Beyond that, any dialogue scene is shot as if the filmmakers gave the camera to Wes Anderson for the day, with every character perfectly centered, talking directly to the lens. This is emotionally distancing, and has the opposite effect of what should be building empathy for these unfortunately treated characters. When The Outsider isn’t oscillating between twee and The Third Man framing, it’s doing its best impression of The Searchers.
While we’re on the topic of Western canon, The Outsider does its best to ignore socially conscious films that came before it and instead reverts to horrifyingly sexist tropes to push forward its male, white-centric plot. Jing’s wife only exists to show how terrible James can be and to further Jing’s motivation to kick some ass. She’s treated as less than a human being and her death is a real bummer for the men and only the men. All of the other women in the film are faceless (at times), nameless (all the time) orifices for male pleasure. Also, somehow The Outsider twists itself into a knot to show that Chris is the true hero, and not Jing. The white savior angle is not easy to include, but The Outsider is determined to make that work.
It’s possible to make a film about bigots without being bigoted itself. The Outsider must have missed that lesson.