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Blackthorn

Dir: Mateo Gil

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Magnolia Pictures

102 Minutes

For over four decades now, the default mode of the American Western has been a state best described as ruefully elegiac. There have been exceptions, of course, but the westerns that have had the most heft have been those that mourn for a bygone era of the nation’s history, offering comment on the waning of a once dominant cinematic genre in the process. The subtext is usually as plain the noonday sun out on the range.

The new film Blackthorn certainly doesn’t stray far from this well-worn path. The title refers to the alias of James Blackthorn that’s been adopted by Butch Cassidy as he lives out his older years down in Bolivia. Played by Sam Shepard with a perpetually unperturbed weariness, Butch musters up the strength to head home after some 20 years in exile. His plan to journey north with the earnings from years of raising horses is complicated when he encounters a Spaniard named Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), who claims to be running from the hired hands of a corrupt mining corporation. Eduardo holds out the $50,000 he stole from the mine as enticement for Butch’s assistance in evading his pursuers.

For a good portion of the running time, the film plays out like a standard road movie with two mismatched people tossed together by fate, squabbling as they grow to like and respect one another. There are a few extra cards up the film’s dirty flannel sleeves, however. It becomes clear that it’s also about the different motivations people have for leaving their past in the obscuring shadows and the way that past has a tendency to reassert itself at the most unlikely and inconvenient times. To that end, there are a handful of flashbacks to Butch’s younger days partnered up with the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) with their shared paramour Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) in tow. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” plays the younger version of Butch and he does a nice job mirroring Shepard’s performance without resorting to impersonation. In the end, these flashbacks don’t add up to much, mostly serving to introduce an antagonist from the past (played by Stephen Rea) who, it’s painfully obvious, will figure prominently in the third act of the film. The scenes do offer up a pleasantly battered playfulness, presumably as acknowledgement of the famed 1969 take on the Western bandits by screenwriter William Goldman and director George Roy Hill.

The spirit of the flashbacks does push nicely against the prominent solemnity of the rest of the film. Shepard has long looked like he most belongs among the dirt clouds of a Western, a quality that’s only compounded with age. If not for the bushy beard and the messy haystack of hair atop his head, he’d look like he was carved out of granite. He wears the gravity of the hard day in every bit of his demeanor, squinting as he looks upon a future he can’t measure.

Screenwriter Miguel Barros has conceived an alternate history for an iconic figure that’s intrigued but not quite shaped into a fully felt story. There’s a drift to the film that makes it feel a little softer than it should. Director Mateo Gil tries to add some cohesion through mood and tone, but his primary interest seems to lie in capturing the beauty of the terrain the characters move through. He and cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia collaborate to craft sequences of aching beauty that stand up admirably to the high bar recently set by Roger Deakins with the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit. It’s maybe most striking when the characters cross a desert with sky and sand so white that it’s almost as if they’re riding through a stunning snowscape.

Blackthorn doesn’t aim to reinvent the western. If anything, its relative strength derives from the way it cleaves closely to the preferred methodology of recent years. If you can’t change the modern canon, why not aspire to join it?

by Dan Seeger

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