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Pitched somewhere in the middle of the triangle formed by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) and Stanley’s Hardware (1990), writer-director Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones (2014) is a powerfully acted neo-Western that blends intense character drama with dystopic sci-fi. If the whole thing is somewhat deflated by a rather meandering ending, it does nothing to take away from the journey, which is packed with memorable characters, some rather ingenious plot developments and genuine emotional power.

We’re dumped into a world of the future, although of 20 years or 100, we’re never really told. Stylistically, it’s pure Western, as the land has been in the grip of a devastating drought for long enough to turn everything into parched desert…everything, that is, except for the lush, green areas that are served by the “state” waterworks: the “wet areas,” as they’re called. In these areas, things function much as we might expect, albeit with the extra oomph provided by futuristic robotics and technology. In the “dry” areas, however, it’s a hard-scrabble existence, punctuated by harsh living conditions, sudden death and constant water wars: the untamed West, if you will.

Our lowly protagonist, Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is one of the farmers who’s stuck it out, along with his son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and daughter, Mary (Elle Fanning). Mother Katherine (Aimee Mullins) is living in a care facility after suffering a crippling injury of some sort, rendering Ernest a single father, of sorts. He’s a former alcoholic who makes ends meet by delivering supplies to the very same corrupt waterworks employees who continually resist running much-needed waterlines through Ernest’s sun-baked land: talk about your nasty Catch-22s! After his only well goes dry, poor Ernest is reduced to buying his water from gas station-style pumps and praying for much-needed, long-absent rain.

It wouldn’t be a Shakespearian tale without some Shakespearian intrigue, however, and we get that in bulk with Mary’s boyfriend, the elegantly sleazy Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult). Flem is a smooth talker with a new con for every day of the week and a bone to pick with Ernest, thanks to a perceived slight involving the land that Flem’s father used to own.  As Flem exerts more influence over the increasingly rebellious Mary, he butts heads with Ernest in a million different ways. Through it all, Jerome, our constant narrator, observes it all with his slightly detached gaze: ever faithful to his father, yet caught in Flem’s thrall, nonetheless.

Trouble strikes when the Holm family mule heads to mule heaven and Ernest is forced to buy a robotic replacement (the robot auction is a real thing of beauty). This kicks off a series of unfortunate events that culminates with Flem stealing the “mule,” Ernest tracking him down and…well…”something” happening in the desolate wasteland, far away from prying eyes. What it is, exactly, we won’t know for some time but the tragedy results in Flem becoming the de facto head of the family, much to Jerome’s consternation. When the suspicious son gets the full details on what happened in the desert, however, thanks to the robot’s previously undisclosed video recording function…well, let’s just say that there’ll be hell to pay and leave it at that, eh?

Despite some occasional familiarities with other films (There Will Be Blood was never far from my mind, at any time), Young Ones is a strikingly fresh, thoroughly intriguing film. The script is quite clever and unfolds is a completely organic manner, with some surprising (yet always logical) twists. The blending of dystopic sci-fi and Westerns is seamless and quite magical, if I do say so, creating a believably immersive world, one that’s built up by a million little details and subtle touches. It’s the best kind of world-building, one that’s accomplished by layers rather than a sledge-hammer.

Young Ones is a very dialogue-heavy film, without a doubt, but Paltrow’s script and cast are more than up for the challenge. In most cases, anything this “talky” might become tedious but some of the film’s greatest pleasures come from the frank, in-depth conversations that the characters, particularly Ernest and Flem, have with other. There’s a wry lyricism to Paltrow’s lines that makes everything simultaneously grim, yet rich: it’s a quality that I associate with Cormac McCarthy and, while Paltrow isn’t quite there yet, I can easily see him getting there in the future.

Without a doubt, one of the shining stars in Young One’s crown is its phenomenal cast. Most of the time, it’s an easy best that Michael Shannon will be the best thing in whatever he’s in: there’s an honesty to him that makes it all but impossible to tear your eyes from the screen whenever he’s there and Ernest is one of his best, most complex roles in some time. In this case, however, Shannon gets a run for his money from Smit-McPhee, Hoult and the rest of the superb cast: everyone brings their A-game, making this one of the most exquisitely acted films I’ve seen in some time. To be honest, Hoult and Smit-McPhee give two of the best performances of the year, playing two of the most radically different characters possible. Only Fanning, normally great, falls short of the mark: chalk it up to the character or the performance, but Mary is a constantly petulant, unpleasant and hysterical character, never sympathetic, even during the moment’s where the film practically demands it.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending, which sputters into the station after the film runs out of steam some 20 minutes before the finish line. It’s the odd deflating moment in a script that normally runs like a Swiss clock, feeling like nothing less than Paltrow ran out of things to say before he ran out of film: again, only notable due to the fact that the rest of the film moved so effortlessly.

That being said, Young Ones is still a mighty impressive film and bodes quite well for Paltrow’s future. When the film really works, there’s a sad sense of poetry that says more about the death of the idealized West than a million cowboy hats ever could. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography is often quite beautiful (the mournful shots of the robotic mule pacing across the mesa are, quite simply, stunning) and there’s a sense of austere seriousness to the proceedings that fits it all like a glove. While there’s something inherently tragic about the Holm family and their blood-spattered legacy, the only tragic thing about Jake Paltrow (and yes, in case you’re wondering, he’s Gwyneth’s brother) is that we’ll need to wait for his next film. When you’ve got something like Young Ones on your calling card, the sky, quite frankly, is the limit.