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Justice Unleashed: An Advance Review of FX's "Justified"

The Wild West represents the untamed heart of darkness within every man, a place whose lawlessness was inimical to the spirit of possibility that existed in its great expanse.

A place where anyone could reinvent themselves if they had the grit to do so. But the line between maintaining the law and executing justice and falling prey to the violence and depravity of the untamed wilderness wasn't an easy one to walk. To keep the criminals at bay, a lawman often had to use the villain's tools of the trade: he had to be every bit as deadly and cunning as the men he was after.

In FX's sensational new drama series Justified, based on Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens character (first seen in the novella "Fire in the Hole"), the figurative embodiment of that 19th century Western lawman is U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a man who lives by a strict moral code that finds him meting out punishment that's every bit as savage as the fugitives, neo-Nazis, and lowlifes he's tasked with bringing to justice.

He's a soft-spoken man of his word, a marshal who asks nicely the first time and then follows up with a shot to the heart. Raylan Givens is clearly a man out of time, whose ethos is more at home in a fictional version of the Wild West than in modern policing methods.

An incident in Miami involving a fugitive, a lunchtime meal, and a "justified" gunshot in a very public place result in Givens being reassigned from Florida to a sleepy coal mining town in Harlan County, Kentucky. The very same town that Raylan was raised in, in fact, and one where there aren't too many people who are happy to see him return. Ghosts from his past, including his former friend turned career criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), now remarried to another man, his criminal father (Raymond Barry), and an old flame, Ava (Joelle Carter), who just happens to be Boyd's girl.

So what is a trigger-happy lawman to do? Tipping his trademark Stetson, Raylan sets out to clean up this outlaw town but he's hampered by the fact that while his past actions may have been justified, that doesn't mean that they'll be tolerated by the U.S. Marshal Service and that this town is filled with far too many memories.

Timothy Olyphant is absolutely perfect in this role and every word he utters crackles with energy. Olyphant has excelled at playing complicated good guys and amoral bad guys but never with the same amount of restraint and passion as he does here. Raylan Givens is charismatic and charming but never overtly so. He's a complex man with an even more complex moral code that might involve breaking a man's nose for poor manners but he's always deadly honest and doesn't issue idle threats. The result is an engaging and compelling anachronism of a man, one whose affectations--that swagger, that hat--belie a connection to a time long past and a simmering anger inside him.

Olyphant is ably assisted by a top-notch cast that includes Zea and Carter, as well as the sublimely magnetic Goggins, as well as a trio of actors who play Raylan's fellow marshals: Nick Searcy (Chief Deputy Art Muller), Erica Tazel (Deputy U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks), and Jacob Pitts (sniper Tim Gutterson). There's history between Raylan and Art as well as a wary camaraderie while Raylan's less familiar with the other two. Subsequent episodes peel back some of the layers in Tazel and Pitts' characters and we begin to learn more about Raylan's colleagues. There's an especially great scene between Olyphant and Tazel where we learn just why Raylan wears a cowboy hat.

But hovering over the action is Goggins' Boyd Crowder and he provides an ideal adversary for Raylan Givens, a man who has taken a very different path than Raylan, despite their shared backgrounds. Their scenes together are palpably tense, elegantly choreographed dances of gunfire and banter. The pilot episode's climax, set at Ava's house, is a masterclass of confident and refined acting as the two square off over the dinner table.

I don't want to give away more of the plot because the three episodes provided to press were absolutely exquisite gems of rough justice, unique characters, and an original setting that's not typically seen on television. In the gifted hands of novelist Elmore Leonard and writer/executive producer Graham Yost, the two vividly bring to life a world of good and evil enacting a daily battle in a small coal mining town that's the farthest thing from Los Angeles or New York City. (Though, rest assured, Raylan does hit the road as well, as seen in the fourth episode, where he heads to Los Angles on the hunt for a fugitive that escaped him once before.)

The result is an original and compelling series that offers a throwback to classic Westerns, crackling dialogue (in many cases, courtesy of Leonard), and compelling characters that you'll want to spend your days and nights with. It doesn't take a quick draw to see that FX's electric new series Justified might just be the most original thing to blow through town in a while.

Justified premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on FX.


Radha said…
I've really been looking forward to this and your positive review has moved this to the top of tivo list!
Anonymous said…
Looked forward to the show, but disappointed. Harlan is not a place of Nazi rocket launcher carrying people. Did not even mention Bloody Harlan.
it is also dry. That could have easliy been worked into a story. We all went to the bootleggers as teenagers. Or those crazy Dr's giving out Oxy
Don't think I seen a coal truck either. Or a 4 wheeler going down the highway or on teh off road park.
Or a lake where we all hung out at the boat dock causing trouble.
Kids cutting down trees 2 weeks before halloween til 2 weeks after just to block the road.
We are just stump jumping, ass backward , tobbacco spitting inbred hillbillies.

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