What if the legendary Butch Cassidy, partner in crime with The Sundance Kid, didn’t really die in that famous shootout in Bolivia in George Roy Hill’s iconic 1969 film? What if he escaped the 1908 slaughter and has been living in the country’s remote mountains as a horse rancher for almost 20 years? And what if a practically unknown Spanish director somehow snagged Pulitzer-Prizewinning playwright and actor Sam Shepard to play that surviving outlaw, surrounded him with an outstanding international cast, and mantled them all with surreal scenery and stunning cinematography? The result would be Blackthorn, one of the best westerns ever, and one of my favorite movies of the year.
Every now and then I hear someone say, “I don’t like Westerns.” I’m always aghast when I hear that. I don’t understand what it means not to like Westerns. To me, a film lover of all genres, and a patriotic American to boot, that overused complaint about Western movies seems to me totally ludicrous. It’s like saying “I don’t like movies that are mythic tales with horses in them.” Regarding Blackthorn, some people have blithely called it “a western for people who don’t like Westerns.” Eeegads, what does that mean? Folks, Blackthorn is the quintessential Western–it just happens to take place on the frontiers of Bolivia instead of the western United States.
It’s got all the elements a good Western should have–a lone wolf hero who is rich, not in gold, but because he answers to no one. A girl who should know better than to hang out with such a hero, especially if he’s twice her age. A new friend who may not be what he seems. A buried treasure. Mysteries and memories. Lots of bad guys at every twist in the road. A nemesis with a drinking problem. The most incredible natural scenery of any movie this year. And yes, lots of horses, noble beasts who ride fast and far and break their hearts to do their job.
If you liked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (on my top ten for 2007), then you’ll love Blackthorn with its similar sense of tragic loss and moody landscapes. And if you liked Jeff Bridges in True Grit last year, you’ll find Sam Shepard in Blackthorn even more memorable. The actors and the men they portray are completely different–what’s the same is that they are older men who know who they are, remember where they’ve been, and hold precious the few days remaining to them. And both are performances that topped long and worthy careers.
Butch Cassidy, now calling himself James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard) owns a horse ranch in a remote area in the Bolivian mountains. He’s amorous with his amiable housekeeper Yana (played by Peruvian actress Magaly Solier), one of the few human contacts he allows himself. He writes often to a young man in San Francisco, whom he refers to as his “nephew,” but who could very well be his son. The boy’s mother was Etta Place (Dominique Elliott), the renegade schoolteacher who loved both Butch and The Sundance Kid.
Woven throughout the present day story, Blackthorn remembers the old days when his younger self (Danish actor Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), and The Sundance Kid (Irish actor Padraic Delaney) were inseparable companions to one another and their beloved Etta. Shortly after Butch puts Etta on the train to go home to the United States, he and Sundance are ambushed by the Bolivian army. But contrary to what most people thought, this movie tells us that the two of them escaped. Alas, terribly wounded, Sundance died shortly afterwards. But Butch successfully avoided capture and lived a secret identity for almost two decades.
When Blackthorn learns that Etta has died, he decides to return to the states to get to know the boy he never saw. “There are two moments in a man’s life, “Blackthorn says, “Once when he leaves home and the other is when he returns.” So he makes the emotionally grueling plans to leave. He says goodbye to Yana and takes his horses to town to sell them. The sale money should take him the long journey north. Alas, fate, in the hands of astonishing first-time screenwriter, Miguel Barros, has other things in mind.
Eduardo, (Eduardo Noriega), a young Spanish mining engineer, tries to kill Blackthorn for his horse, which then runs away with all of Blackthorn’s money. Both of the men are now stranded without water in the hellish desert. Blackthorn sets off by himself. Eduardo begs Blackthorn to take him with him. He confesses that he stole $50,000 from the richest mining baron in Bolivia, and buried it, and now a dozen enraged men are chasing after him. Eduardo promises to share the money if Blackthorn stays with him.
Blackthorn agrees. He wants the money, yes, but deep inside, Blackthorn longs for the companionship and adventure he had with The Sundance Kid. In some ways the mining engineer is Blackthorn’s last chance to relive his glory days. Like Sundance, Eduardo is charming, and clever and loves to steal other people’s money.
Times have changed though, a fact that eludes Blackthorn who’s been isolated for a long time. In these new times buddies aren’t as reliable as they once were, and friendship is as much a burden as it is a bond of loyalty. Soon Blackthorn and Eduardo are running for their lives against a really motley crew of native pursuers. Blackthorn feels so good about things, he sings at the top of his lungs to the looming canyon walls.
Each stop along the journey is more perilous than the one before and more astonishing to look at. There are the treacherous mountain roads, the lovely ancient city plazas, and the native people who look just like their Incan ancestors. There’s a drunken ex-Pinkerton operative (Irish actor Stephen Rea) who’s always believed Butch Cassidy is still alive. Mostly, there is the vast salt plain, the largest in the world, which provides the only means of escape–if they can live long enough to get across it.
Blackthorn is director Mateo Gil’s English-language film debut. Because his hand is so sure in this film, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 12 years since he made his last film and that was in Spanish. Gil brings out the details in an actor’s performance as well as covering the huge, broad strokes of the landscape. He weaves in the past–nostalgic, sad, hilarious–at the most appropriate times, never intruding on the present story, but helping to create the fullness of the Blackthorn character by filling in the blanks we wonder about. The film moves at the breakneck speed when necessary, but Gil also takes the time to show how the journey across the salt plain is also the journey across the characters’ inner landscape. If the salt plain doesn’t break them, it might make them. And then there’s a jaw-dropping revelation that spins Blackthorn into another direction–and makes the audience ache for his rude introduction to the modern world.
If there’s any movie so far this year that demands you see it on the big screen, it’s Blackthorn. The native people in their colorful costumes and the terrifying planes of the defiant desert are images you probably have not seen before–and once you see them, you can’t forget them. And then you’ll tell all your friends to go and see this wonderful Western.