Canadian greatness: Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox

Famed Canadian outlaw Bill Miner might have been the most soft spoken, polite, counterintuitive criminal in the annals of history and the late great Richard Farnsworth plays him as such with his trademark clear eyed, honest voiced, pure hearted charisma in Phillip Borsos’s The Grey Fox, a film of stunning quality, wonder and grandeur both great and small. Miner spent the early part of his life as a career criminal with a penchant for politeness and after a three decade stint in San Quentin, he meandered north to Kamloops, BC to reconnect with his estranged sister and start a new life. His old ways find him once again though and soon he carves out a new legacy as a notorious train robber and once again his life takes a turn for the adventurous. He falls back into this groove simply out of habit I suppose, and because he feels he isn’t meant for much else. He meets and romances early feminist artist Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), mentors his dim witted partner in crime Shorty (Wayne Robson), does the odd shady rustling work for local magistrate and crime kingpin Jack Budd (Ken Pogue) and is pursued by an eerily placid Pinkerton detective (Gary Reineke). Farnsworth makes this character sing, he was a stuntman turned actor who was just born with a natural gift and lit up the screen with impeccable emotional truth and vivid vitality anywhere he appeared, and this (along with his beautiful work in David Lynch’s The Straight Story) may be the finest work of his career. He makes Bill a quiet, sweet, compassionate and honest man, the absolute antithesis of what we’ve been told a lifelong criminal must be like, he’s always the most comforting presence in the room, is a natural leader and trailblazer and his scenes of tenderness and love with Burroughs are blessedly open-hearted and kind. The film was shot in and around some keystone British Columbia locations that don’t often get to play themselves in cinema (American studios can’t just shoot in their own locations, they’ve always got to rip off ours with no due credit) including Kamloops itself, Cheakamus Canyon, Fort Steele, Lillooet, Cranbrook, Pemberton and of course Vancouver. This adds a rugged, authentic realism and elemental grace to Bill’s story as Farnsworth and his cast-mates wander about in the wild Pacific Northwest realm, captured wonderfully in its early days by cinematographer and set designers alike. The score intertwines with traditional Celtic melodies for a unique musical/visual experience as well, especially in a hypnotic opening sequence where a steam train makes its way around the bend of a mountain pass as the credits lope alongside it. From that gorgeous opening crawl until the final melancholic few moments where another train goes by, this time in the other direction and for a different reason, this is a mesmerizing experience, anchored by Farnsworth’s angelic, note-perfect character work and everything else mentioned above. Available for rental on iTunes for 99c.

-Nate Hill