These days elegiac Westerns are the only kind anyone seems interested in making anymore. But when the result is a film as moody and beautiful as Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Robert LeRoy Parker, popularly known as Butch Cassidy, is thought to have died in a shootout with soldiers in San Vicente Bolivia, by the side of his friend, the Sundance Kid, as history students and film fans are equally aware. But the remains of the two were buried quickly in an unmarked grave, and the evidence of their death is sketchy at best. For over a hundred years, there has been rampant speculation that one or both men actually survived, and recent exhumations of the gravesite have yielded no evidence that the men are there.
Gil’s new film takes as its starting point that Parker/Cassidy did survive, took up the name James Blackthorn, and lived in Bolivia for years to come. In fact, at the opening of the film he’s already at a quite advanced age for the era (he looks to be well into his sixties). This won’t be a film about a young hero; it will be about an old man trying to stay alive and get home. It will be about loss, regret, and possibly even guilt.
The great Sam Shepard invests the role with an understated dignity and gravitas. Perhaps too much so to be historically accurate, but historical accuracy isn’t what Gil is after here. Blackthorn is a character study, and Shepherd is one of the most interesting actors of his generation. His silences are fascinating, and his clipped (and infrequent) speech escapes his lips only reluctantly. We can only guess at what’s truly going on behind his eyes. Eduardo Noriega, on the other hand, whose character Blackthorn is thrown into engagement with early in the film, is more of an open book. The Spanish actor, celebrated in Europe but less well known in the U.S., has the experience and confidence to match up with Shepard, and does so admirably.
Gil himself has an impressive pedigree as a writer, co-penning, most notably, both the Spanish mindbender (Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) and its Cameron Crowe English-language adaptation Vanilla Sky. Both his writing and his direction are restrained and soulful. And cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia (Glengarry Glen Ross, At Close Range, Confidence) spreads a gorgeous canvas on which to place the action, especially in the scenes shot on a vast salt desert.
Blackthorn will perhaps inevitably be compared to George Roy Hill’s 1969 Redford/Newman classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, especially since it contains flashbacks to the same time period covered by that film (the flashbacks aren’t as successful as the rest of the film, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, recently of Game of Thrones, does deliver a notable performance as a young Blackthorn). But a much closer analogue would be the other recent Western in which Shepard appeared, Andrew Dominick’s criminally underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both feature masterful lead performances, (Brad Pitt was award-worthy as Jesse), both deal with problematic relationships between famous outlaws, and their intimates both are masterfully shot, both take their time to unfold, and both eventually present critiques of the outlaw myth of the American West. Blackthorn might fall a bit short of the lofty heights of that film, but it is beautiful and compelling in its own right.