Butch Cassidy is back
Blackthorn is a starkly effective western movie and an intriguing exercise in speculative fiction. It’s also a sort of unofficial sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—but only in that its basic premise is that Cassidy somehow survived that final showdown in Bolivia circa 1908, and that nearly two decades later (1927) he wants to leave his little horse ranch in the Bolivian wilderness and return to the U.S. and whatever’s left of his family.
Played by Sam Shepard, the aging Cassidy of 1927 calls himself James Blackthorn and finds himself reflecting on the life he’s led. The film’s account of his misadventures in leaving Bolivia is intertwined with voice-over readings of letters he’s writing his “nephew” in the States and flashback glimpses of the past with Butch, Sundance and Etta Place (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, and Dominique McElligott, respectively).
Directed by Mateo Gil (writer of The Sea Inside), the film plays out as an ironic and not entirely satisfactory mixture—part gunfighter epic, part ironic anti-western. Shepard, however, is very satisfactory with whatever the story throws his way—the exuberant horseman and adventurer, the wry and fatalistic old-timer, the grimly unrepentant outlaw.
Miguel Barros’ scenario gives Shepard/Cassidy a couple of piquant foils—a young desperado (Eduardo Noriega) who tries to steal Cassidy’s horse and then becomes a temporary sidekick, and a boozed-up ex-Pinkerton agent (Stephen Rea) who remains obsessed with Cassidy. Between the three of them, Blackthorn finds occasion to revisit the mythology of the Old West and to test it against the ironies of a more modern kind of awareness.
The violent action and the stark Bolivian landscapes (superbly photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchía) give it the sting of the better class of spaghetti westerns. And there’s an undercurrent of elegiac tragedy running through the reflective moments and the action scenes as well.