Director: Bennett Miller; Cast: Ryan Gosling, John Hawkes, Joel Edgerton, Tom Berenger, James McAvoy, Walton Goggins, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Johnny Cash.
What is Outlaw Country? For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a genre of country music created by country legends Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Waylon Jennings in the late sixties as a reaction to the softening of Nashville Honky Tonk, and as an exploration into the purity of free living men. Men who yearn for firm-feeling women, well-tuned guitars, and whiskey that cuts through the pain until nothing’s left but the rawness of truth.
The film Outlaw Country is also that sort of exploration, and like the musical style from which its name derives, the film exists outside of the system, while remaining an intrinsic part of it. Much like the irony of a movie like Fight Club being made by Fox, when you watch Outlaw Country you’ll wonder how the hell Paramount ever agreed to make it, but you’ll give thanks to God that they did.
But this isn’t just the study of a largely unknown offshoot of country music. It’s a celebration of the purest of all the outlaws: the late great Waylon Jennings.
The film opens on a dark airstrip in 1959. Before boarding an overbooked single-engine plane, a young Waylon gives his seat away to The Big Bopper (Jason Siegel, who put on forty pounds for this one scene). Richie Valens (Michael Pena) and Buddy Holly (Jay Baruchel) board the plane, and Holly tells Waylon, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” To which Waylon replies, “Well Buddy, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Then Holly offers the slightest of smirks to Waylon, who was Holly’s bass player on the Winter Dance Party tour, and Waylon watches the plane move down the jetway.
Then, we see Waylon’s face for the first time, just as a single tear falls down his cheek. This version of Waylon is portrayed by actor Ryan Gosling, which is worth a mention because just as we’ll never see Buddy Holly again, this is also the last time we’ll see Gosling, at least in Outlaw Country.
Director Bennett Miller explains: “A lot of people are comparing this to Todd [Haynes]’s movie I’m Not There. I just don’t think that’s a fair comparison.”
Miller’s referring to Haynes casting six radically different actors in his interpretation of the life and work of Bob Dylan. Miller took it a step further in his choice of recasting Waylon in every scene. That’s right. In the Waylon Jennings biopic, the legendary country music star is portrayed by no fewer than forty-seven actors, most notably Gosling, Marlon Wayans, Michael Fassbender, Judy Davis, John Hawkes, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and Christopher Walken.
Walken said in a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, “Guys, when I was a boy, all I wanted was to be Waylon Jennings. I was a song and dance man. Country boy, deep down. Inside.”
Which, okay, makes no sense since a) Jennings was only six years older than Walken and wasn’t performing until Walken was a grown man, and b) Mr. Walken is from Queens.
Miller, who also wrote Outlaw Country’s screenplay, explains, “What Chris is saying is this is a movie that breaks the biographical mold. A lot of what you see may confuse you. Sometimes it confuses me. If you’re looking for a straight-up narrative you can sum up in a Netflix review, go watch Walk the Line. Or fuckin’ Blackthorn, Bloodheart, Crazy Mouth. I get them all mixed up. But this ain’t that movie. This is a tribute to a man who was riding a big blue ball.
“Miller’s been doing that since we started shooting,” says producer Michael De Luca. First it was the hick accent. Then he’s directing the actors using song lyrics, mostly from Luckenbach, Texas. We were shooting the scene where Waylon storms out of the USA for Africa recording session. Waylon was played by John Hawkes at the time, and John asks Bennett what was Waylon’s motivation for, you know, hightailing it. And Bennett gets right up in John’s face and sings, ‘The successful life we’re livin’s got us feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys.’ And you know what? John knew exactly what he meant. It’s a fucking intense scene.”
Wracked with guilt for thinking his words gave way to “The Day the Music Died,” Waylon turns to amphetamines to ease the burden.
He meets Willie Nelson (James McAvoy) in a recording session and the two become fast friends, recording several albums together in the film’s record-breaking forty-five-minute montage, culminating in the eighties, when Willie and Waylon (now played by Ving Rhames) join forces with Kris Kristofferson (Joel Edgerton) and Johnny Cash (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as the super band The Highwaymen.
But these moments from Waylon’s life aren’t part of a narrative flow of any kind, as Miller pointed out. The whole film, much like Waylon lived, plays like one long moment, interspersed with nuggets of truth, plenty of myth, and journeys to space.
The astronaut scene is going to be Bennett Miller’s Tree of Life dinosaur.
Without giving too much away, it features Val Kilmer as a bearded Waylon, floating through the big empty with a meditative glare behind his space mask as Old Five and Dimers (Like Me) twists our hearts like gasoline soaked rags, reminding us we’ve lost our way. The scene itself is breathtaking and, pardon me for going all wine and cheese, but no one’s going to understand it.
“No one understands why it’s there. No one. Waylon Jennings did not travel to outer space. That is a fact,” says Outlaw member Jerry Jeff Walker, who’s played by Walton Goggins.
Parts of the film feel like someone just turned a camera on in the middle of Waylon’s life and pointed it at him.
One scene begins with Waylon (William Zabka) flushing cocaine down the toilet as federal agents and NYPD cops storm the recording studio.
Cut to Waylon (Peter Stormare) backstage watching Johnny sing Orange Blossom Special and take two vicious pulls off his coke bullet.
And each scene gives birth to the next.
Miller’s saying in essence that life doesn’t contain a narrative you can squeeze into two hours, not in a way that would make any real sense. Our lives are a catalogue of moments and that’s what we think makes us who we are.
Taking a swig from his whiskey glass, Miller strokes his long beard and says, “We all cling to this idea of ourselves. I’m this, I’m that, that’s not like me, I don’t feel like myself today. It’s all a bunch of bullshit. We ain’t anyone. Yet, we are, the world. We are the people. We are… Oh wait, he didn’t… he didn’t sing that song, never mind, never mind, I got confused.”
“They should have called this movie The Day the Music Lived,” Kristofferson said on a call from his home in Santa Fe. “For a whole lot of reasons. Hasn’t been a film that understands the spirit of country since Bob Altman shot Nashville in ’74.”
“It’s about identity,” said Tom Berenger, who plays the final version of Waylon walking off stage in his last performance, slow-mowing it in his leather vest and black cowboy hat, carrying his ’53 Telecaster down the hall into the blinding white lights. “And not Waylon’s identity, it’s about Bennett’s. This movie is as much about him as it is the man who left his boot print on country music forever. Look at him. Look at what happened to him.”
“Sure,” Miller said, “ain’t no doubt this guy got inside me, rearranged my soul, him and his music did that shit to me. But there are many men in me. You understand what I’m saying? It’s like this: remember the son-a-bitch who shot Lennon? Why’d he say he did it? Because he loved him so much he was becoming him. He had to do it. To save his own life. This movie, is the opposite of the assassination of John Lennon. We took all that love Waylon gave us and we made something.”
Walken elucidates, “Everything he says, it’s crazy. Guy told me the other day, why he chose me to play Waylon, says it’s because we both got six letters in our names. Says it’s like Jesus and Elvis.”
When we finally asked Miller if he thought Waylon Jennings would relate to this (at best) loose interpretation of his days, he smiled, put on a black cowboy hat and slow walked out of the interview.
His publicist says he’s holed up in his trailer in Luckenbach, Texas, waiting for Willie and the boys.
Adam Cushman holds an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. His short stories have appeared in The Mississippi Review, Trop, The St. Petersburg Review, El Portal and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing at Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is the President of Red 14 Films. His novel CUT releases February 2014 from Black Mountain Press.