Butch Cassidy takes his own famous advice and goes to Bolivia in vivid revisionist Western
Directed by Mateo Gil
Cast: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega
Used to be Westerns were standard-issue Hollywood boilerplate. From the silent era up through the ’50s, cowboy movies were the backbone of the film industry. These quick-and-easy tales of white-hat heroism were simple, escapist fare—the equivalent of cop movies in the ’80s or superhero movies today. Nowadays, with rare exception (Cowboys & Aliens, for example), when someone chooses to make a Western, it’s not some flippant wild West fantasy about good guys and bad guys. More often than not, today’s Westerns are dark, elegiac compositions about a long-faded way of life—and, by extension, a long-faded genre of moviemaking.
Mateo Gil’s meditative neo-Western Blackthorn may long for the nostalgic romanticism of Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy, but its feet are firmly planted in the hard caliche of today’s cynical revisionism.
Gil, writer of Abre los Ojos and The Sea Inside, directs a script from first-time feature writer Miguel Barros. The concept is simple: The famed outlaw Butch Cassidy (of ... and the Sundance Kid fame) didn’t die under a hail of bullets fired by the Bolivian army in 1908 as is popularly understood. No, our anti-hero made it out alive and has been hiding in a tiny Bolivian village under the assumed name of James Blackthorn ever since (or at least until 1927 when our story starts up).
As played by famed playwright/actor/director Sam Shepard, this Butch Cassidy is a larger-than-life legend, an icon of the freedom and rebellious fighting spirit the old West once engendered. Now well in to his 60s, Cassidy is still a commanding figure. But his outlaw ways have cooled somewhat. The old man has been exiled from America for a couple of decades now, and he’s starting to get nostalgic. He keeps in touch with his old life by penning letters to his “nephew” (most likely his biological son, born to fellow Wild Bunch gang member Etta Place). Having saved up a bit of money and having outlived his legend, Cassidy figures maybe it’s time to head home.
On his way out of the country, however, Cassidy crosses paths with Eduardo Apodaca (Spanish hunk Eduardo Noriega from Abre los Ojos and The Devil’s Backbone). Eduardo is an ambitious young thief who’s just swindled $50,000 from a Bolivian mining company. He was smart enough to get away with the loot, but not clever enough to avoid the posse hot on his heels. Recognizing that “Mr. Blackthorn” is a man of some violent skill, hapless Eduardo shadows him, begging for help. Perhaps content to score some extra traveling money, perhaps eager to experience a touch of his old life, Cassidy agrees to mentor the young criminal in his nefarious enterprise. Naturally, things don’t turn out quite the way they were planned.
Blackthorn is an evenly paced affair with a just smattering of action scenes—more at home in the art house than the multiplex. Mostly, it’s a character study on the part of Shepard, who does bang-up work as the grizzled gunman, the world-weary warrior, the semi-repentant rebel. Though he allows the story and the characters to spend much time in surly self-reflection, director Mateo Gil isn’t totally interested in dirty realism. Instead, his crisp digital lensing lingers on the spectacular landscape of Bolivia—from the rounded mountaintops to the dead-level salt flats. And when it isn’t luxuriating in the landscape, the camera is studying the craggy, calm face of Shepard. This is a clue that—for all his revisionist “real west” leanings, Gil still hungers to capture the cowboy myth.
Along with the story of Eduardo and Mr. Blackthorn’s adventures, we get flashbacks to the turn of the 20th century when a young Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Padraic Delaney) and Etta (Dominique McElligott) were having a high time in South America. These segments recall not the romanticism of the Old West so much as the romanticism of George Roy Hill’s 1969 masterpiece Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Coster-Waldau, currently playing smug bastard Jaime Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” looks uncannily like a young Robert Redford, who actually played The Sundance Kid. The happy camaraderie of the three actors is a clear reflection on the work of Redford, Paul Newman and Katherine Ross in Hill’s 1969 film. I suspect the makers of Blackthorn don’t dream of living in the golden days of the Wild West so much as the golden age of Hollywood.
By the evidence at hand, Gil is a skilled director, capable of capturing some jaw-dropping vistas with his camera. Although it should be pointed out that today’s hyper-vivid digital cameras are starting to rob film of some of its style. Not all art needs to be deep-focus photography. Some of it should be watercolor. Or oil painting. Or pointillism. Nowadays, everybody wants to be Ansel Adams.
Barros’ script is simple, but features just enough twists and turns to keep the entertainment moving and the characters evolving. The supporting cast—particularly Stephen Rea as a burned-out Pinkerton man—makes even the small roles memorable. The real star, though, is Shepard. Everyone involved seems to know this and affords the legendary actor enough time and space to give his character the lived-in feel of a well-worn but still-tough cowboy boot.