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Blackthorn

D: Mateo Gil / 102m

Cast: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott

Bolivia, 1927: An old man named Blackthorn (Shepard) writes a letter to his nephew saying that after spending too long in South America, he is planning to come back to the US and finally meet the young man he’s never seen.  Leaving behind the woman who’s shared part of his life in Bolivia, Yana (Solier), Blackthorn sets off on horseback.  Along the way he encounters Eduardo Apodaca (Noriega), a Spanish engineer with a nearby mining company who has stolen $50,000 and is being chased by what appear to a posse hired by the mining company.  Blackthorn agrees to help Apodaca in return for half of the money, and they head for the mine where the money is hidden.

As they make their way there, flashbacks show that Blackthorn is actually Butch Cassidy (Coster-Waldau), believed to have died in a shootout with the Bolivian army in 1908.  With his partner, the Sundance Kid (Delaney) and Etta Place (McElligott), he travels from the US down through Mexico and into Argentina, where in 1905 he is almost captured by Pinkerton agent Mackinley (Rea).  Later, Ella, now pregnant with Sundance’s child, returns to the States; Butch and Sundance end up in Bolivia where the aftermath of their encounter with the Bolivian army leaves Butch helping a wounded Sundance to escape.

Blackthorn and Apodaca retrieve the money and narrowly avoid the posse.  They return to Blackthorn’s cabin, but the next morning two members of the posse arrive looking for Apodaca.  There is a shootout in which Blackthorn is wounded, and Yana and the posse members are killed.  The two men attempt to flee the country by heading across the Uyuni salt flats and over the mountains beyond.  The posse tries to outflank them; the two men split up and in the process manage to kill their pursuers.  Blackthorn reaches a nearby town and is treated by a doctor.  While he’s unconscious, the doctor notifies a now retired Mackinley about Blackthorn’s presence.  At first, Mackinley plans to have Blackthorn arrested by the Bolivian army, but he changes his mind; he also tells Blackthorn the truth about Apodaca’s theft of the money: the mining company is owned by the mining families, which means Blackthorn has aided Apodaca in stealing from “the people”, something which is at odds with his principles.  He sets out to track down the Spaniard, but is pursued by the Bolivian army and the miners.

Blackthorn - scene

A slow-moving, often leisurely movie, Blackthorn takes a “What if…?” idea – what if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in 1908 but lived on, what would he be like, say, twenty years on? – and spends an hour and forty-two minutes still trying to work out an answer to the question.  On the surface, Blackthorn is a handsomely mounted movie that aims for an elegiac feel but instead falls short, its pace so slow at times that elegiac becomes sluggish.  The main problem is that once it’s clear that Blackthorn is Cassidy, the mythic nature of the man is confirmed, leaving his involvement with Apodaca and the pursuing miners something of a letdown.  It’s perhaps more realistic in terms of the time and place, but it’s also less satisfying at the same time.  It’s as if the filmmakers, deciding to bring Cassidy back, then couldn’t come up with a better story to suit the man and his iconic status.

The character of Apodaca is also a problem, his callow treachery entirely to be expected, and Blackthorn’s inability to see through him as believable as Mackinley’s later change of heart.  It all goes to serve a plot that twists and turns in on itself with increasing frequency, the money stolen by the Spaniard proving no more than one of Hitchcock’s famous McGuffins, an unadventurous hook on which to hang the storyline and the action.  Also, with Blackthorn proving such a taciturn and irascible old man, it becomes difficult to sympathise with him as the movie progresses.  Even when he becomes aware of Apodaca’s lies, his reaction is less angry and more slightly peeved, which is in stark contrast to when his initial encounter with Apodaca leads to the loss of his horse and the $6000 in savings it was carrying.  Losing his horse makes him furious; duping him and putting his life in danger, well, that’s not so bad.

Shepard is a great choice for Blackthorn, but the producers decision to cast Coster-Waldau as the outlaw’s younger self, undermines the idea that only twenty years have passed since Cassidy’s “demise”, as there’s no physical similarity between them, and there’s such a disparity in their characters that any sense of regret that Blackthorn may feel at spending so much time in Bolivia seems false by comparison.  That said, Shepard brings a quiet authority to the role, as well as a requisite world-weariness, and is a commanding presence that is sorely missed in those scenes he doesn’t take part in.  As the Spaniard, Noriega is whiny and annoying in equal measure, but has little room to manoeuvre as the script by Miguel Barros doesn’t attempt to add any flesh to the character’s bones.  Rea is a breath of fresh air, his measured performance as Mackinley adding some true depth and pathos to the notion that these two men, once great adversaries, have seen their time come and go, and now deserve whatever peace they can find.

Gil is a capable director, and makes the most of the Bolivian locations, in particular the salt flats which are spectacular, but he falters when trying to find the emotion in a scene, or the connection between some of the characters; only Blackthorn’s relationship with Yana has any degree of conviction or truth to it.  Barros’ script attempts to extract some mileage out of Blackthorn’s age and situation but it often feels forced and unreliable.  Shot with the deliberate look and feel of a Sixties western, Blackthorn looks the part, and it has that Spanish feel to it that is reminiscent of international oaters of the time.  And there’s a great score by Lucio Godoy that evokes the period and the movie’s western antecedents with emotive aplomb.

Rating: 6/10 – not a bad movie per se, Blackthorn still falls short of its ambitions, stumbling through a too simple story that lacks depth and passion; often beautiful to look at, it’s for fans of speculative drama and the great Sam Shepard.

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