‘Blackthorn’: Riding into the sunset

October 3, 2011

The cowboy – rugged, stoic and resourceful – will always be a cinematic archetype, though the western has all but disappeared as a commercially popular genre.

For a grittily entertaining and thoughtful example of just how good a western can be, look no further than Mateo Gil’s accomplished “Blackthorn,” an outlaw tale that is at once exciting and elegiac, elegant and earthy.

Part of that has to do with Gil’s vision, fleshed out by the ravishing Bolivian locations where he filmed. But a good deal also has to do with the central performance – as good as he’s ever been – by Sam Shepard, one of our greatest playwrights who started out (and probably still remains) a cowboy at heart.

It’s giving nothing away to say that James Blackthorn, the character Shepard plays, is in fact the aging Butch Cassidy. It’s 1928, 20 years after Cassidy and his pal, the Sundance Kid, were supposedly killed in a shoot-out with the Bolivian army. In this version written by Miguel Barros, Butch escaped with his life and has been living a quiet life, breeding horses and keeping to himself on a remote Bolivian ranch.

But having received news of the death of Etta Place in San Francisco, he decides to cash in and head back to the U.S. to meet the son she left behind – perhaps Sundance’s, perhaps his. As he says at one point, there are only two significant events in a man’s life: when he leaves home and when he goes back. Everything else is just the middle.

His plan is disrupted, however, when, after selling a string of ponies and withdrawing his savings from a bank, he’s ambushed on his way back to his ranch by a man trying to steal his horse. His horse gets away, but Butch captures the bandit, a Spanish engineer named Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), who persuades Butch not to kill him by promising to share a fortune he has hidden in a silver mine not far away.

Apodaca’s story is that he stole the money from one of the country’s biggest mine owners. He’s on the run from the rich man’s posse; his own horse died of exhaustion and the altitude; hence, his attempt to steal Cassidy’s.

But, having secured the money in the mine, Butch finds himself in a familiar situation: on the run from a rather insistent group of men whose sole aim is to catch and kill him. In the process, he also runs up against an old foe: an aging Pinkerton agent named MacKinley (Stephen Rea) who once cornered Butch and Sundance.

Barros’ central story is strong enough that it could stand alone. Shepard’s rustic wisecracks are pungent and understated, full of bite and spice that catches you by surprise. With a full beard and stiff gait, he could be channeling Gabby Hayes by way of Jimmy Stewart.

But Gil and Barros are interested in something deeper and more bittersweet. Cassidy is a man facing the end of his life, though as he points out, he’s been his own man for its entire course. He is beset by memories of the past, which become flashbacks populated by a cast that includes Nicolaj Coster-Waldau as the young Butch, Padraic Delaney as Sundance and Dominique McElligott as Etta.

In those segments, Gil isn’t trying to channel George Roy Hill’s 1968 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Rather, he’s trying to capture some of the sense of derring-do and pure give-a-damn youth that this aging (but not elderly) outlaw still cherishes but has learned not to flaunt.

Shepard, who for a moment many years ago had a chance to be a leading man in the movies, hasn’t had a role this meaty in something this good, probably since “Country” or “The Right Stuff.” His Cassidy isn’t a brooder, just laconic – but when he delivers an opinion, it comes with a sharp edge. There’s also a sadness and regret that Cassidy works to suppress but which Shepard allows to peek through nonetheless.

He’s got a juicy foil in Noriega, a longtime collaborator of Gil. His Apodaca is a passionate man trying to make an ally of a distrustful would-be partner, but he’s also someone capable of duplicity. Rea, meanwhile, brings a sorrowful humor to the role of the ruined Pinkerton, given one final chance to redeem a wasted career.

The stunning Bolivian countryside – majestic mountains, imposing salt flats and everything in between – is captured with breathtaking majesty but also great simplicity by cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia. Gil makes the terrain a character in its own right, alternately an ally and a threat, imposing enough to dwarf all human aspirations or at least put them in perspective.

“Blackthorn” is a rousing and involving film, featuring what could serve as a terrific valedictory performance for Sam Shepard, if he were ready to quit acting. Hopefully, he won’t; as “Blackthorn shows, he still has a lot to offer.

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