That’s my reaction upon seeing Blackthorn, the new western from Mateo Gil, the director of Nobody Knows Anybody and the writer of Open Your Eyes, upon which Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky was based. It’s a beautifully shot and exceptionally acted film, but I’m not sure what it’s getting at. You could market it, I suppose, as a sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, since it takes place after the events of George Roy Hill’s classic film, and tells what may be the final adventure of Butch Cassidy after he miraculously survived the massacre that concluded it. That’s what the plot is about, but the film has more to do with the weariness of old age than the kind of playful historical fiction that the concept suggests. It offers long quiet stretches of character interspersed with memorable jolts of melodrama and adventure, and it’s perfectly easy to watch, but I’m not sure it amounts to anything as significant as its pensive tone suggests.
There are two basic kinds of westerns: the fast-paced action spectaculars and melancholy examinations of life on the frontier. The Good, the Bad and the Uglies and the McCabe and Mrs. Millers. It’s interesting that Blackthorn is the latter, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the former. Of course, Blackthorn isn’t an “official” sequel, coming as it does from a different company and lacking a number on the end of the title, but the real difference for the segue is thematic. As young western legends age, the life of violence takes its toll and, in films at least, they learn to savor the calm sanctity of the quiet life. The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, or at least the porch of a cool summer breeze and fresh lemonade.
Sam Shepard stars as Butch Cassidy, aka Robert LeRoy Parker, aka James Blackthorn, who has settled into an easy existence in Bolivia many years after his supposed death in San Vicente in 1908. At the start of the story, he feels he’s lived in exile long enough, and writes home to the son of his former accomplice Etta Place, who left the gang to give birth to Sundance’s son, Robert Longabaugh, and whom Blackthorn has reason to believe may be his own (not that he goes on about it). He sells his horses and is all but ready to leave when a gentleman thief named Eduardo, played by Open Your Eyes star Eduardo Noriega, steals his horse. His money gone, Blackthorn joins Eduardo in one last criminal enterprise to recover the money Eduardo has stolen from a corrupt mining magnate, and then fend off a group of highly motivated bounty hunters.
Thanks to a series of flashbacks (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a mighty convincing young Sam Shepard) we see the parallels drawn between Eduardo and Blackthorn in his prime, but I’m not sure that much actually comes of that from a thematic perspective. Blackthorn develops a friendship with the charismatic young rogue, but never seems to empathize with him, nor does he regain an element of his youth from their partnership. It’s a fairly straightforward “Wisdom of Age Meets Recklessness of Youth” relationship, with Blackthorn contributing more to their collaborative efforts than Eduardo ever does. Only towards the end of the film, when Eduardo’s secrets are revealed and a Pinkerton from Blackthorn’s past comes back with an unusual perspective on their adventures, past and present, does the film finally settle into its themes of temperance and grace, achieved through years of excess. Blackthorn’s journey does not seem to lead him to any new conclusions about life, merely an affirmation of his own worth, which hardly seemed to be in question.
Blackthorn amounts to little more than a superior acting showcase and one last adventure for a western icon. At its peaks, it’s a nicely dramatic film with suspenseful but subdued action sequences that touches upon greater philosophical merit, but it never quite excels on either level. Blackthorn leaves the viewer feeling like they’ve taken an interesting journey, but haven’t actually gone anywhere. You can find it on Video on Demand right now.
CRAVEONLINE RATING: 6.5/10