Blackthorn is a nod to classic westerns, an homage to that genre that never comes across as stale or worn. Sure, all of the tropes and archetypes are there, including a grizzled outlaw who has mellowed with age, a chance encounter that pulls him back into his previous life, and hell, they even shoot day-for-night in some key scenes, an obvious tip of the cap to its predecessors. The set up is familiar, but director Mateo Gil and writer Miguel Barros craft a tough but moving story that is much more about character than shootouts and violence.
Notorious old-west bandit Butch Cassidy, leader of the famed Wild Bunch with his friend the Sundance Kid was, by most accounts, killed in 1908 in a shootout with the Bolivian military in the village of San Vicente. There have been many rumors, reports, and conspiracy theories that have him surviving this encounter, and living out his years in secret.
Blackthorn supposes that after escaping the forces that hounded and tracked him for years, namely the infamous Pinkertons, Cassidy (Sam Shepard) settled down in a remote Bolivian village to raise horses under the name James Blackthorn. Blackthorn lives a simple, peaceful existence. He has friends and a lover, but as he ages, more than 20 years removed from his outlaw ways, he pines for his homeland, and decides to return.
Blackthorn sets his affairs in order, secures what money he can, and sets out on the voyage home. A chance encounter with a young Spanish engineer, Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega, The Devil’s Backbone), changes his path. Eduardo stole $50,000 from the richest, most powerful man in Bolivia, and is on the run from a gang of riders, and Blackthorn is compelled to return to his Cassidy ways for one last epic adventure. There’s more to both men than they let on at first, each harbors deep secrets, but the two form a begrudging alliance that transforms into a close friendship.
Shepard turns in one of the best performances of the year as Cassidy. He is not a good man, not your traditional hero, and only takes Eduardo under his wing for the promise of a grand financial reward. He’s grizzled in the way a western protagonist needs to be. When asked, “What do we do now?” his impatient, one-word answer is, “Drink.” This is a man who is not afraid to cauterize his own bullet wound with gunpowder and no anesthetic. But Sherpard’s Cassidy is not all sneering looks and tough guy posturing. He’s also capable of moments of great joy, love, and rides with a song in his heart and on his lips. At his core, Cassidy is a relic, a holdover clinging to the past in a changing world.
Brief flashbacks tell pieces of the story of Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott, The Guard); how they wound up in Bolivia, how they survived their supposed deaths, and the romantic triangle the trio forms. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) plays a Pinkerton agent who stubbornly pursues them, only to become a disillusioned alcoholic when he no longer has a quarry to chase.
As Blackthorn and Eduardo carefully pick their way through the countryside, and it becomes more and more apparent who Blackthorn really is to those they encounter, Blackthorn becomes the story of a man coming back to life. Cassidy has lived so long as Blackthorn that participating in this fight serves as sort of rebirth. The heart of the movie, the big question is, can a man change? Who is this man? Is he Blackthorn or Cassidy? And is there a difference?
The only real complaint I have is that I wish they didn’t come right out and tell you that James Blackthorn is Butch Cassidy. A written preamble states this fact explicitly, so you enter into the film with that knowledge. The whole premise, the whole relationship between Cassidy and Eduardo, is built on secrets, lies, and deception. Cut out this brief introduction, and you would still know that Blackthorn is not who he appears to be on the surface, and the film does an excellent job gradually revealing him.
Such an approach would have been a fun adventure to go on, and could have added a whole new thematic layer to Blackthorn. As it stands, though, Blackthorn is a wonderful movie, full of sweeping, stunning landscapes from lush mountain jungles to barren salt flats—cleverly using a standard Western tactic, the panoramic shot, with exotic Bolivian instead of Western vistas—and pitch perfect, mood setting music, but that one tweak to the exposition could have given it an even greater boost.
Magnolia has put together a nice package with the DVD release of Blackthorn, starting with 22 plus minutes of deleted scenes, ten scenes in all. In reality most of these are primarily extended versions of already extant scenes. These are nice supplemental elements, but add little substance that is not already in the final film; like elongated flashbacks where the final version is much more succinct and to the point, or inconsequential explanation. There is more good stuff from Stephen Rea in these clips, which makes them worth a look, especially for fans.
A ten-minute behind-the-scenes documentary delves into the filmmaker’s motivations and their journey making the movie. They wanted to explore another aspect of Cassidy’s myth, and extensive interviews with director Mateo Gil and other behind the scenes players illustrate their intentions. This feature is what it is, nothing more, but they know when to say enough is enough, and it doesn’t drag on for too long. This feature is accompanied by a five-minute look at Blackthorn from HDNet, which is essentially an elongated commercial for the film, though it does a solid job introducing the story, and features a nice interview with Shepard.
The most interesting part of the bonus material is the inclusion of a pair of Gil’s short films, Breaking and Entering—which stars Eduardo Noriega, and Say Me.