Blackthorn

Blackthorn

d. Mateo Gil / 2011 / Spain-USA-Bolivia-France / 102 mins

Even though critics have given it a lukewarm reception, you could do a lot worse than Blackthorn if you were on the hunt for a western in the vein of 2010’s True Grit. It’s got big boots armed with prickly spurs to fill however, as the plot offers the hypothesis that Butch Cassidy survived his encounter with the Bolivian military in 1908 and headed on one last adventure in the hopes of returning to the United States and finding Etta Place’s son (of questionable parentage).

I’ve never got around to reviewing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but those of you who have read my opinions on The Princess Bride may remember how highly I regard the writing of William Goldman. It’s a fantastic film for many reasons other than Goldman’s screenplay but it’s the script that truly makes it such an enthralling watch. Does Blackthorn live up to these expectations and revise the genre in the same way that Unforgiven did back in 1992? No. Does it need to? No.

It has its faults, though they’re certainly not due to the cinematography. For my money, Blackthorn may well be the most visually arresting western I’ve ever seen. Filmed on location throughout much of Bolivia, the photography is quite simply sublime and could well be used as a promotional video for Bolivia’s tourism board. Landscapes play a big part in this film and go a long way to lending Cassidy’s (now going under the name James Blackthorn) journey an ethereal quality.The entire film has a reserved sense of nihilism and bleakness that suits this narrative of nostalgia, loss and most of all, powerlessness.

Sam Shepard too, is marvellous as Blackthorn and manages to expand on the performance of the late, great Paul Newman, channelling Kris Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges on the way. The rest of the cast all play their parts well as they come into focus, but Blackthorn remains a one man show right through until the end. Although this could be  noted as a fault with the script, it only exacerbates Blackthorn’s loneliness and helps paint a picture of a man still grieving over the loss of his partner.

To this end, there are number of flash-backs of Butch and the Kid’s days together that can’t help but draw comparisons with the 1969 film. They miss the opportunity to position Blackthorn’s memories as being central to his identity and instead feel pointlessly anecdotal, rather than anything of benefit to the narrative. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau  plays the younger Blackthorn well, but I couldn’t help feeling that he should be cast as the Sundance Kid due to a greater perceived resemblance to Robert Redford. I know that this is unfair, as the film should be viewed as a separate entity, but the film relies on so much pre-conceived awareness of the previous film (the final moments in particular) that it’s difficult not to wish for it to distinguish itself a little more.

The dialogue falters on occasion and the story never develops into anything particularly grand but that by no means makes it an underwhelming film in general. Like Butch, it’s a film that’s hesitant to develop new tricks but has enough life in it to avoid being put out to pasture. It’s true that Blackthorn doesn’t cover any new ground, preferring to retread a well worn trail instead. If you’re anything like me however, you’ll find it a trip that hasn’t been travelled enough in recent years and well worth the revisit.

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