Silent and (Un)Deadly
Published on October 9th, 2011 | by Rachel Chu0
“Blackthorn” opens at Sunshine Cinema on October 7
Running time: 98 Minutes
The year is 1927. Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) is living in exile in Bolivia. Here is a man whose whole life is carved into his face. The vigors of youth are behind him; in fact, most of the world thinks he’s long dead. He goes by James Blackthorn now.
He’s scratched out an isolated existence in the mountains. He trains horses. He mostly keeps to himself but he’s found, if not exactly love, then affection and companionship with a local woman.
Into the still pool of his life drops a pebble. A letter arrives with news that Etta Place is dead of tuberculosis, leaving behind an orphaned son. Sundance’s son. Cassidy quietly packs up, turns his horses into cash, and makes plans to find the boy in California. At which point a desperate Spanish engineer named Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega) crashes into his life and tears those plans to shreds.
“Blackthorn” has all the classic ingredients of a Western. A stoic hero – for every one word he says, there are fifteen left unsaid. One last hazard before settling down into a life of quiet domesticity. A stolen treasure. A posse in pursuit. Stark landscapes, majestic and merciless in equal parts. If those sorts of things appeal, if you liked “The Assassination of Jesse James” (also starring Sam Shepard) or “3:10 to Yuma” or “True Grit”, then “Blackthorn” is for you.
There is a gripping sequence where pursuer and pursued are within sight of each other. Both are spent, parched, traversing scorching salt flats, their horses moving at a labored trot. It’s not a high-speed, adrenaline-pumping chase, but a grim endurance test to see which man or horse will drop of exhaustion first
Another great scene is when Cassidy awakens to find an old adversary standing vigil over him. Once on opposite sides of the law, the two weathered men slowly come to the realization that they now have more in common than not. Compelling stuff.
Which is not to say that the movie as a whole doesn’t have its problems, because it does. Rookie director Mateo Gil doesn’t show enough conviction about what kind of movie he’s supposed to be making. It’s got too much action-adventure for an introspective movie, and too much introspection for a real shoot-‘em-up. I wasn’t invested enough in the secondary characters for the twist ending to have much weight. And I didn’t walk out of the theatre thinking about my own life and regrets, as the best specimens of the genre make you do.
I wonder why Gil, with such writing credits as “Abre Los Ojos” (remade in English as “Vanilla Sky”) and “Mar adentro” (“The Sea Inside”), didn’t work on the screenplay. I can’t help but think that “Blackthorn” would have been a better movie had it been about a character named James Blackthorn, who had nothing to do with Butch Cassidy whatsoever. The Cassidy/Sundance history should have worked as a narrative shortcut, but the movie doesn’t take advantage of it and still walks the audience through the backstory one expositional step at a time. Perhaps freed of the weight of that backstory, the movie could have ventured into more challenging territory, and achieved a greater sense of action and immediacy. Or if you want to make a movie about an older Butch Cassidy, then forget the Eduardo character and make the movie about Cassidy and the orphaned boy.
As I mentioned, if you like Western genre, you’ll like “Blackthorn.” Sam Shepard can play the gruff, strong and silent type with the best of them. However, if you’re looking for a film that transcends its genre, “Blackthorn” is not it.