A classically minimalist Western, Mateo Gil’s “Blackthorn” proposes that Butch Cassidy did not die in Bolivia in 1908, but instead spent the next 20 years there turning into Sam Shepard. The pic’s mythic dimension derives not from any quaintly quirky mannerisms or speech patterns, but rather from the bred-in-the-bone way the human figure inhabits the breathtakingly vast landscape (Bolivia giving Death Valley a real run for its money). And Shepard delivers in spades, his character weary but just crackpot enough to survive. Gil, no Leone, does not profoundly reinvent the genre, but still provides a welcome if modest reminder of what oaters can offer.
Just picked up by Magnolia Pictures and skedded for release later this year, “Blackthorn” may have discovered the genre’s natural demographic. Pic should appeal to aficionados of all ages and to older arthouse-goers who will be drawn to the grizzled, Pulitzer Prize-winning Shepard as well as to the ravishing vistas of a cinematically undiscovered country.
Gil (best known as the Spanish scriptwriter of “Open Your Eyes,” “The Sea Inside” and “Agora”) keeps the plot simple. Living under the name James Blackthorn, Butch Cassidy (Shepard) runs horses from his small ranch, finding occasional solace with strong-minded but affectionate companera Yana (Magaly Solier, “The Milk of Sorrow”). Having grown homesick, he decides to return to the States and the son that might be his; flashbacks to more devil-may-care times make clear that Butch, Sundance and Etta Place were partners in all things.
Bushwhacked on his way home by Spanish mining engineer Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), Butch soon finds himself embroiled in one mad last adventure. At stake is a share of the money Eduardo stole from the richest man in Bolivia, whose minions are hot on their trail. But Butch has outlived his era; his ability to act within the peculiar moral code that defines him is undermined by ignorance of current events, which winds up costing him dearly. This final fling with a young English-speaking sidekick proves less a revival than a betrayal.
Shepard effortlessly incarnates the Western loner on the lam, his every gesture bespeaking distances to travel, dangers to circumvent and respites to savor. His past recklessness (as the younger Butch, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau inexplicably looks more like Robert Redford’s Sundance than like Paul Newman’s Butch) is evoked in flashbacks to grinning near-death escapes. But now his anarchic streak has been channeled into less hazardous mischief: Bouncing along on a mule singing the misanthropic ditty “Sam Hall,” he belts out the ballad’s “Damn your eyes!” refrain with particular relish.
Stephen Rea rounds out the international cast as an ex-Pinkerton man still pursuing his obsession in Bolivia, though his drunken claims that Butch is still alive have branded him a nut. Widescreen lensing by vet cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, far from “westernizing” Bolivia, almost turns it into another planet, lending it an unearthly beauty all its own.