Friday, July 29, 2011

Blackthorn Movie Review

If you're in the USA, you've probably not heard of this film yet. It has opened in Spain, where it was produced. According to IMDb, it has recently opened in the States for an Oscar qualifying run.

I love the mythology of the Old West. I love the simplicity of the black hats and white hats shooting it out to establish dominance in a land without the same sense of law and order that existed in the East. It’s a fundamentally American genre albeit one that has been appropriated by other cultures. Australia has its fair share of films that share themes and nearly all Japanese samurai films are variations of westerns.

One of the great myths, at least in Hollywood terms, is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, already turned into a classic film forty years ago. Now Spanish director Mateo Gil has extended the Butch and Sundance story and made a convincing Western set in the rough and rugged landscape of Bolivia.


Blackthorn begins with a title card informing us that recent evidence suggests that the two outlaws were not actually killed by the Bolivian army in 1908. The story picks up some twenty years later with Butch living as a rancher in Bolivia. Now aging and gristled and played by Sam Shepherd, he goes by the name James Blackthorn and writes letters to a nephew whose mother has recently died back in the USA.

James decides to sell off his horses, withdraw all his savings from the local bank, and return home. On his way, he’s shot at by a Spaniard named Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega). The shooting frightens away James’ horse along with all his money. It turns out Eduardo mistook him for one of the men following him – hired men by a local mining magnate from whom he claims to have stolen $50,000. James agrees to keep him alive and travel with him in exchange for half the loot when they reach its hiding place. James is in favor of the theft for his dislike of the victim.

Some of the most amusing dialogue in the film takes place in these early scenes as James and Eduardo establish the framework for an eventual partnership that will remind James of his days riding with Sundance. James hurls a continual litany of epithets and insults at the man. After all, he was responsible for the loss of everything he had in the world.

This narrative thread is the heart of the film, as they ride together evading the relentless pursuers behind them (who are reminiscent of the Pinkertons in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). I kept expecting James to casually drop the line, “Who are those guys?” The film would be a wonderful little gem if it weren’t for several completely superfluous flashback scenes explaining what happened to Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place when they reached South America and how they escaped the Bolivian army in San Juan.

In the flashback scenes, Butch and Sundance are played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Irish actor Padraig Delaney (European productions frequently employ a truly international cast). The actors are fine, but the back story provided adds little to the overall narrative and I found myself anxious to return to the older Butch with his new partner Eduardo, whose scenes are far more interesting than those tucked in by screenwriter Miguel Barros.

What Blackthorn does particularly well is recreate the majestic beauty that is the hallmark of the western genre. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía captures the landscapes in all their picturesque glory. Shooting exclusively on location, he transports us through snow-covered mountains, green valleys, rugged expanses of dry desert, and the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, which provide one of the staple sequences of many westerns – the long and deadly haul through open land.

Ultimately, Barros brings us round to the climax by a rather dubious plot turn in which MacKinley (Stephen Rea), the Pinkerton who pursued them 20 years earlier, turns up in the exact town to which James and Eduardo make their final escape. Again, this is a salient detail only for the unnecessary flashback scenes. The MacKinley character could have been excised completely with a different road to the end mapped out instead. Yes, Barros and Gil are trying to achieve a story about what age and experience do to men. In that respect, James (or Butch) and MacKinley are the key characters. But I think they could have achieved it more concisely and more subtly if they’d kept the focus within the later period scenes.

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