Monday, October 03, 2011

Blackthorn: Butch Cassidy Rides Again

George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended with what might be the most dramatic freeze frame in cinema history. While it clearly implies the two protagonists die in a hail of bullets, it never shows the evidence. Of course, legendary outlaws are tough to kill, leading many to hope and speculate there might be a bit more life left in the characters after all. Though not an official sequel, Open Your Eyes screenwriter Mateo Gil’s take on the western genre unofficially serves in that capacity. An older, wearier Cassidy rides again in Blackthorn (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

James Blackthorn quietly raises horses on his Bolivian ranch. He used to rob banks with his pal, Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid. After years of lying low, Blackthorn is preparing to return to America to settle some personal business involving the son of Etta Place, Sundance’s companion, with whom he also shared an ambiguous but significant emotional connection. We can assume he still has a strong memory of those raindrops falling on his head.

His plans are decidedly complicated by a desperate Spanish bandit, who tries to horse-jack him on his way home. Of course the reckless Eduardo Apodaca is no match for Blackthorn/Cassidy, even if the crafty old-timer looks like he is well into his seventies. Much to his chagrin though, Blackthorn’s horse is spooked, running off with his life savings. In no mood to negotiate, he reluctantly agrees to a deal: keep Apodaca alive and split his hidden loot.

Weathered-faced Sam Shepard has the perfect look and an established western credibility to carry-off the iconic role, in effect stepping into Paul Newman’s boots. The cast playing Cassidy and Sundance in flashbacks have a tougher go of it though, but Nicolak Coster-Waldau (Lena Headey’s brother in Game of Thrones) has his moments as young Cassidy. Stephen Rea also makes the most of his screen time as Mackinlay, Cassidy and Sundance’s former Pinkerton nemesis turned expat drunkard (presumably inspired by the boater-wearing Joe Lefors always seen in the far distance throughout Hill’s classic). His scenes with Shepard have a poetic resignation that really cuts to the heart of the film.

Unfortunately, there is a pronounced element of class warfare that weighs down the film like a pair of saddlebags filled with lead. We repeatedly hear the big Spanish mining companies were the real crooks rather than Cassidy and Sundance. (Of course, what the country really needs are more employers and stable financial institutions.) Since Blackthorn was shot on location in Bolivia, one wonders if Evo Morales or his master in Venezuela had input on the shooting script.

Despite an unsatisfying wrap-up, Blackthorn is a fittingly tragic coda to Cassidy’s saga. Frankly, it is a little strange that it is playing the art-house circuit, because it is a very commercial film, quite appropriate for the Wal-Mart demographic, many of whom (fortunately) still buy western novels. Indeed, Gil has a nice sense of the genre’s dust and desolation, affectionately paying tribute to the original Newman and Redford film. A nicely elegiac western overall, Blackthorn opens this Friday (10/7) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.