On the way out of my first viewing of Mateo Gil's Blackthorn, I overheard someone calling it a "standard Western"--as if that would be a bad thing, if there were any such thing anymore. Making a Western these days is anything but standard; they're enough of a novelty that it's still worth being thankful when we get one, and not dismissing it for being less than a masterwork. Blackthorn, a Spanish production with an international cast, has touches of artsiness and a low-budget offhandedness, but more than anything, it's a good old-fashioned dusty B oater, and more power to it for that.
Miguel Barros's screenplay posits an intriguing notion: let's suppose that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren't killed in that famous shoot-out with the Bolivian cavalry. It finds a much older Cassidy, living quietly in Bolivia under the assumed name of Jack Blackthorn; he makes his living as a horse rancher and keeps correspondence with a young man back in America who is probably his son. These days, he's contemplating going back: "There's only two moments in a man's life," he says. "One's when he leaves home, and the other's when he returns." He's got a simple plan for making the journey, but his plans are waylaid by an encounter with a thief, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), who becomes his first friend in many, many years.
Cassidy/Blackthorn is played by Sam Shepard, whose presence in a movie like this is the very definition of reassuring. He gives the character a weary, grizzled impatience; there's not a false note in the performance, which even includes some inspired warbling (both on and off-screen). Noriega makes a fine, enigmatic sidekick; Stephen Rea appears sporadically, but is well-used (and bears more of a resemblance to Bob Dylan with each passing year--or vice versa).
The picture courts trouble with its occasional flashbacks to the younger Butch and Sundance; Uh-oh, I thought to myself, this can't go well. The comparisons to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are inevitable, and the film can't hope to compete--so the filmmakers wisely choose to play those scenes straight, eschewing the distinctive fastball wit of the earlier picture, and that choice works. Less successful is the rather vague and dreamlike stretch at the end of the second act; the film loses its footing a bit when it gets into the desert, and it feels like there is a scene missing after Shepard and Noriega split. Those are the complaints; they are minor.
Video & Audio:
Magnolia Home Video has given the picturesque, outdoorsy Blackthorn an appropriately lovely audio and video presentation. The MPEG-4 AVC image is warm and inviting, filled with lush green trees, strong brown landscapes, and faraway mountains; the lines are clean, and the skin textures are palpable (particularly in a late-night scene of drinking and confessing). Compositions are crisp and dimensional throughout, particularly in the desert sequences.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is rich with environmental sounds--chirping birds, running creeks, and the like--which are a constant but subtle presence, and the brief gunfight in the mine has a sharp, directional spread of sound. The wistful music, meanwhile, is well modulated.
The disc is pre-set to show English subtitles for the considerable chunk of Spanish dialogue; English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Ten Deleted Scenes (22:24 total), most of them extended versions of scenes in the final film, help flesh out the relationships (of Blackthorn and Eduardo, as well as the flashback Butch and Sundance), though most of them are ultimately better in their streamlined versions; that said, the rather meta alternate ending is a good one. "The Making of Blackthorn" (10:27) is a Spanish-language EPK, and though brief, it offers quite a bit of background on the project's origin via the interviews with screenwriter Miguel Barros and director Mateo Gil. Next up are two of Gil's Short Films: "Breaking and Entering" (17:26), from 1998, and "Say Me" (15:05) from 2008. The first is a well-observed and rather tense dramatization of a con; the second, a rather clever boy-meets-girl.
As is customary with Magnolia releases, we also get "HDNet: A Look at Blackthorn" (4:57), a brief EPK featurette (in English, this time). The original Trailer (2:25) and trailers for additional Magnolia Blu-ray releases (with more available via BD-Live) close out the bonus section.
Juan Ruiz Anchia's cinematography is lovely yet intimate; the vastness of the picturesque vistas don't overwhelm the small scale of the narrative. The dialogue is mostly low-key as well, though there are some dramatic moments (I can't begrudge any writer the opportunity to have someone yell "Damn you, Butch Cassidy! Damn you!"); the flashes of intimacy--between Blackthorn and his lady love, and between the two new friends--are sensitively played. Blackthorn is a small film, played in a minor key. That is as it should be. But in its own quiet way, it's quite marvelous.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.