Review: ‘Blackthorn’ features Sam Shepard as a Western icon in decline

10.07.11 6 years ago

Magnolia Pictures

I think my dad would have made a badass cowboy.

You know who the toughest men in the West were?  Old men.  You know why?  BECAUSE THEY MANAGED TO GET OLD.  No easy trick back then, no matter how you made your living.  It was a frontier, and they had to carve a living out of that land.  I think my dad would have done that very well, and I think he would have enjoyed it on an existential level.  He would have been in his element in every way.

After watching “Blackthorn,” the new western starring Sam Shepard, I feel like I’ve got a much more specific idea of what kind of old cowboy my dad would have been.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say Shepard spent time with him at some point and studied him a bit.  He is a weathered, wise, but still vital man in this film, a guy who has found his place in the world, his role in things, and who is mostly at peace with it.

“Mostly” is the key word, since Shepard’s James Blackthorn is a man haunted by something or someone that he ran from at some point, and in flashbacks, we are given pieces of his past that eventually add up to a pretty spectacular reimagining of a real-life Western legend.

At one point, Blackthorn talks about the value of friendship over everything else, and the entire rest of the film is about the way he uses that currency, both in the past and in the present, as a younger man and as an older one.  We see what happens when friendships end because of disagreement or distance or death.  And Blackthorn has to just take it all and roll with it, because that’s what life does.  It brings us together.  And it tears us apart.  And we are just adrift on it, holding on to the ones that are close.

“Blackthorn” is a small and quiet film, but it is about the life you live when borders mean nothing and you are always looking over your shoulder, and it plays out over decades and continents.  Shepard is the star in every sense, both in terms of time onscreen and in terms of sheer charismatic gravity.  He’s pretty wonderful here, and you know from the way he conducts himself that he’s not playing.  He’s a guy who can live like this, a guy who would survive on the range.  Shepard’s got that great face, 100 miles of bad road written on it, and that flat American drawl, and he’s just as strong as ever.  If anything, age gives him a weight that no younger man can match. 

Mateo Gil is best known as a writer.  He is Alejandro Amenabar’s constant collaborator on films like “Tesis” and “Abre Los Ojos” and “The Sea Inside” and the recent “Agora”.  He’s a strong writer, smart and playful, and yet he’s not the writer here.  Miguel Barros is the screenwriter, and I think he’s managed to find a new way to play with the notion of the aging cowboy dealing with his ghosts.  His film isn’t built as a crowd-pleasing Hollywood twist on the film Westerns of our collective past, like “Unforgiven.”  And it’s not an art house elegy like “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” either.  It’s a distinctly romantic portrait of this guy who survived at a certain point in his life, worn out from his time in Bolivia, hiding, his “new” life by now a long and familiar routine.  Two Spanish filmmakers dealing with legends of the American west is interesting to me as a starting off point, and it doesn’t feel like they’re just riffing on movies.  They’ve crafted a film here that looks past the notion of legends to portray a very human face for one of the most famous outlaws of the West, one who has already been immortalized by Hollywood in one of the biggest films of the ’70s.

Butch Cassidy has long since grown tired of being away from the West he helped define, and he’s ready to go back.  He figures he’s safe at this point.  He’s got money stashed in a local Bolivian bank, he’s got some property to sell and settle up, and he starts making arrangements.  When he loses everything on the ride back because of a Spaniard named Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), he finds himself drawn into a lifestyle he’d left behind a quarter-century earlier.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, newly familiar to most people as Jaime Lannister but recently familiar to me from the Norwegian film “Headhunters,” is the younger Butch Cassidy here, opposite Padraic Delaney as Sundance and Dominique McElligott as Etta Place.  What we see in these flashbacks flies in the face of the accepted story of how their lives ended, but it also plays up the notion of them as iconic and beautiful outlaws, to be admired and mourned in their passing.  The flashback stuff is only touched on, which is just the right amount of it.  Most of the film deals with the old Butch, struggling with the notion of family and legacy and what you carry with you, and the best stuff in the movie has a quiet, poetic power. 

I think the film loses some steam towards the end, but there’s an elegance to the photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia and the score by Lucio Godoy and the quiet rhythm of David Gallart’s editing that all works to sell the reality of the film.  With period films like this, I can tell within a few moments if I believe what I’m watching, and with “Blackthorn,” it works right away.  I’m curious to see what else Mateo Gil directs in the future, because there’s real self-assurance in the way this was put together.  “Blackthorn” is a quiet pleasure, but for fans of westerns in general and especially anyone interested in the deconstruction of legends, “Blackthorn” is worth seeing.

“Blackthorn” is available in theaters and on On Demand.

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