Deadwood: The Movie, HBO, 110 minutes, 2019
Tying up all the plot lines and character arcs of a beloved but abruptly canceled three-season television show in one two-hour movie seems an incredibly daunting task. To do it 13 years after said television show was cancelled seems downright impossible. Yet that’s what series creator and writer David Milch and frequent series director Daniel Minahan have managed to do with Deadwood: The Movie.
Returning to their fictitious version of the infamous Dakota Territory mining town so many years later is nothing if not surreal. Frankly, it’s amazing that Deadwood: The Movie exists at all. That it serves as both a satisfying reunion for the show’s wonderfully filthy characters, as well as a captivating, self-contained drama is, as one of the show’s many vulgar sophists might pontificate, a $&%$* miracle.
Revisiting Deadwood 10 years after the events of the show that ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, we find South Dakota on the verge of various forms of modernity, including statehood. Three characters—wealthy widow Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), frontierswoman Calamity Jane (Robin Weight) and villainous tycoon George Hearst (Gerald McRaney)—are returning to town after a decade-long absence. This framing device allows us to more or less pick up where the show left off. Hearst, a junior senator in California, still wants to buy up the land all around Deadwood to usher in a new, civilized era for the region (one that will, not coincidentally, bring him more wealth), though his methods—to no one’s surprise—are barbaric.
Still standing in Hearst’s way are series protagonist Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, looking more like a frontier sheriff than ever), who confronts Hearst after a landowner is found murdered, and the series antihero and most iconic character, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), who is the de facto town leader (and also undefeated champion in curse words uttered per minute). Swearengen has grown a bit softer with age but is played no less brilliantly by McShane. Other series regulars, such as Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Sol (John Hawkes), Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) make welcome returns, while the plethora of eccentric townsfolk, like Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers), Mr. Wu (Keone Young) and Mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson, who has a hilarious encounter with a telephone), each have a last moment or two to interject the main plot with brief asides full of lewd witticisms and ruminations.
The main takeaway from Deadwood: The Movie is not the plot—nor was it with the TV series—but rather the delightful bundle of frontier personalities that populate the town, every one of them elevated through Milch’s wonderful writing. Milch, with dizzying effectiveness, undercuts the loquacious speech patterns of the 1880s with blunt, contemporary (an arguable point) curse words. Newcomers will discover the same unexpected depth and charm in the language of Deadwood here that fans found in the show more than a decade ago. Those same longtime fans are certain to be satisfied by Swearengen’s final #%^#&.