Blackthorn, Magnolia Home Entertainment, 102 minutes, 2011, $26.98
Director Mateo Gil’s Western Blackthorn is, in a word, “strange.” The film is built around the premise that Wild Bunch outlaw Butch Cassidy (popularly portrayed by Paul Newman in the 1969 movie classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) survived the 1908 gunfight with Bolivian soldiers. Since Butch and Sundance were buried in unmarked graves, no one has been able to “prove” that the dynamic duo actually died in that one-sided conflict near San Vicente, Bolivia. Well, there once was a TV movie about George Custer surviving the Battle of the Little Bighorn and standing trial, so anything’s possible on the big or small screen.
It’s 1927, and an aged Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard), now calling himself James Blackthorn, has “gone straight.” He has settled down in the beautiful Bolivian countryside, enjoying time with local girl Yana (Magaly Solier). But as the saying in Western film lore goes, an outlaw can never truly “retire.” Even when he’s no longer looking for trouble, it still finds him. While making a return trip to the States, Butch gets stranded in the desert with a young Spaniard named Eduardo Apodoca (Eduardo Noriega), who has stolen and hidden $50,000. Butch decides to help Eduardo survive both the harsh country and a posse (no Joe LeFors to worry about here, but the posse is still persistent) in exchange for half the loot.
Blackthorn is not strange for the manner in which things happen or the manner in which it is filmed. It is strange because Gil doesn’t explore the movie’s premise—Cassidy’s living well beyond 1908—until the film’s final 30 minutes, by which point it has become almost entirely irrelevant to the narrative. During the film’s first hour, one might ask: What’s the point of even having the main character be Butch Cassidy? What’s the point of establishing an alternate history if you’re not going to really explore that alternate history? Gil might as well have had Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven character, Will Munny, move to Bolivia and change his name to Blackthorn.
Then, perhaps, Gil wouldn’t have found it necessary to insert clunky flashbacks of the bad old days, with a younger Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Padraic Delaney) and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) narrowly escaping the law on many occasions. These flashbacks serve no real purpose, other than perhaps to remind us our protagonist is actually Butch Cassidy. Once a former Pinkerton agent named Mackinley (Stephen Rea) discovers Butch, the outlaw’s history finally comes to the forefront of the film. Unfortunately, the revelation results in a cramped and unsatisfying finale.
While the narrative and character development may at times be a bit of a mess, the diverse and untouched Bolivian countryside lends itself well to the Western genre, and the grand way in which it is filmed would have made John Ford proud. The landscapes, most memorably a long journey across miles of desolate and white salt flats, have a color and magnificence to them. So, too, in his own way, does Sam Shepard. The movie’s problems are not the fault of this dependable character actor, whose other Western credits include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the miniseries The Streets of Laredo (1995). He portrays Butch as a complex man who shows grit, a sense of humor and a certain amount of intellect without ever falling into the wise old man convention. His performance is great in its own right, and there’s no need to call for a comparison to Newman’s Butch.
Gil understands what it means to capture the essence of a Western landscape through a film lens, seamlessly showing off the land’s vividness and enormity. Because of the director’s superb visual tones and scale, as well as Shepard’s performance, Blackthorn is not a bad film. But it is too flawed to be called a good film. So, then, it is a strange film. It’s not a strange film that will die in one final, glorious gunfight, though. Perhaps it will linger on for years at the bottom of a $5 movie bin—a place as hidden as Bolivia.