Blackthorn Review

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Score

Mateo Gil's speculative western about the final days of Butch Cassidy hits full stride only intermittently.

In the elegiac coda to Michael Cimino's Heaven’s Gate, Kris Kristofferson stands haunted and alone on the prow of a magnificent yacht moored off the tranquil, monied coast of Rhode Island. Haunted and compromised by the failure of his nation, he appears to be a shell of a man. His friends dead, his ideals crushed, he has long since embraced the easy life and the big mamoo, but he is a man forever stuck in the past.

Mateo Gil's speculative western about the final days of Butch Cassidy strives to paint a portrait of a man similarly out of place and out of time. Though it ultimately fails to convince, we are still left with a finely crafted western that blends the traditional with the revisionist to stirring effect.

It's 1928 and James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard) is a successful horse trader living in rough-hewn comfort in the verdant hills of Bolivia. An outsider with little time for the fat cat ex-pat American community, he's a man with a very big secret indeed.

Because despite what Paul Newman would have you believe, Butch Cassidy didn't die in a hail of sepia-tinged freeze-frame bullets. He somehow evaded the massed ranks of the Bolivian Army (alas, Sundance doesn't make it in this version of events either, poor bastard) and made good his escape to peacefully see out his days rearing horses.

But when family entanglements and a strain of late-onset, diamond-eyed sentimentality force him to return to the US, Blackthorn cashes in his stake and prepares for the long journey home. Things are swiftly complicated, however, when he loses his money and his horse and has no option but to fall in with a Spanish mining engineer (Eduardo Noriega) who's harbouring a cache of hidden loot.

This is where Blackthorn attains optimal focus, with Shepard and Noriega enjoying some heady chemistry as their rugged, lonely adventure unfolds across the dusty plateaus and salt plain otherworlds of the high Bolivian desert. It's when they return to civilisation that the film makes its only real wrong turn by overloading the plot and adding too much meat to bones that would be better off left spare and bare.

Attempts to generate the conflict and anguish of Cassidy outrunning his own legend aren't wholly persuasive either. Whereas Kristofferson was broken on the wheel of progress as his friends fought and died the cause, Butch's friends are shown – in flashbacks that feature an enigmatic turn from Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the young Cassidy but add little to the film – to be thieves and killers who couldn't have possibly imagined they'd come to anything other than a sticky end.

Shepard – looking like mountain lion gone soft – spends a lot of time staring out of windows or in weary reflection over lost days, and while none of these moments ring entirely false, the film doesn't do quite enough to satisfy the audience they are truly earned either.

These are possibly relatively minor grudges, but less is often so much more in a western and had Gil pared his script back to its sinews, Blackthorn might have been a great film rather than merely a very decent one.

Anticipation

An initial release via iTunes doesn't bode well, but if Sam's back in the saddle, we're riding shotgun.

3

Enjoyment

Solid, expansive, intimate and rousing, but hits full stride only intermittently.

3

In Retrospect

Lonesome Dove with a dash of My Name is Nobody and a side of Ride the High Country, but Shepard, Noriega and the exotic Bolivian locations mark Blackthorn out as a notable entry.

3
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