Dry, dusty and formerly famous
We meet Mr. Blackthorn in Bolivia in 1927. He is getting on in years but looking good. A gringo, if not exactly a gentrifier, he seems uncommonly acclimated. For one thing, it turns out that he wasn’t killed in that shootout with the Bolivian army, after all. For another, he lives quietly now: trading horses, sending letters to a nephew in America and frolicking at will with the much younger local lover who is also his housekeeper. Blackthorn is not his real name, of course. But neither was Butch Cassidy.
It goes to show that there is something to be said for dying young(ish), in the proverbial blaze of glory, as played by Paul Newman. But then, staying alive long enough to be played again by Sam Shepard seems pretty good, too. Hence Blackthorn, a sequel or alternate-history epilogue by which Spanish screenwriter Mateo Gil (The Sea Inside) makes his directing debut. If it seems hard to believe that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out as long ago as 1969, that where-did-the-time-go wonderment might be just the point of Gil’s otherwise larkish endeavor. Blackthorn presents itself as a slow-moving elegy for peppy western movie mythology. Much of its appeal is in seeming so innocently ignorant of all the other similar elegies.
What’s more, Gil and writer Miguel Barros seem eager to reconcile an old American fable with slightly newer Latin American moods and landscapes. It is not long after meeting Mr. Blackthorn that we find him cashing out his bank account and saddling up for a long northward ride. It seems like fate when a swarthy young stranger, played by Eduardo Noriega, interferes. He has some stolen money stashed away, and will share it in exchange for help eluding an angry posse. (There is also a detective to elude, well played by Stephen Rea.)
This has political implications, but the film coyly misdirects our comprehension of them. In the meantime, it spins itself out into dry and dusty buddy movie, with these two peculiar figures scampering through dingy mine shafts, riding across sublime salt flats, and calling each other “goddamn Spaniard” and “old man” in order to become friends.
“Your ass is softer than a bookkeeper’s,” Mr. Blackthorn eventually has cause to announce, once they’ve gotten to know each other better.
Naturally, the old bandit is reminded of his younger adventures. In flashbacks, so are we. Pity poor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the younger version of the man; he’s plenty charming and good looking, to be sure, but almost pre-surrendered to a palpable not-quiteness. He seems to know that he’s neither a Newman back then nor plausibly a source of the Shepard now. Similarly, Padraic Delaney does fine as Sundance, but under these circumstances, fine doesn’t quite cut it; this hardly seems like a guy who’ll later have a fancy film festival named after him. And as Etta Place, the woman who loved them both, Dominique McElligott apparently has no choice but to seem perfunctory.
Though inherently hapless, these Back When He Was Butch scenes are devout and mercifully brief. Aside from not living up to a more famous film, they have the duty of accounting for absence of our hero’s more familiar partner in the Blackthorn present tense. And it is to Barros’ and Gil’s great credit that the still-aliveness of Robert Redford would be of no use to the movie they have made.
That’s partly due to Shepard’s monumental presence going so far on its own. He’s getting by on grizzled-coot machismo in the same way Ed Harris now is—it is poignant to see how they’ve both aged since appearing together, each so definitively, in The Right Stuff—and even as we sense that movies have nothing else left to do with him, the lack of self-pity is reason enough to watch. Here Shepard seems always to be looking us right in the eye, saying, “And so what if it’s a cliché?”
In the confident quietude of Blackthorn, its drowsy pace studded here and there with shivers of violence, that question lingers. So does a theory of movie heroism that allows at last for the magnanimous surrender, of expectations.