By Betsy Sharkey, Tribune Newspapers critic
10:00 PM PDT, October 12, 2011
In the opening scenes of "Blackthorn," the old desperado who gives this mostly satisfying Western its name is bent over a letter, writing of coming back home to the U.S.
Though he's grown gray he remains split-rail hard, suffers no fools, and he's still plenty fiery too, if the girl in his bed is any indication.
Naturally, the character is played by Sam Shepard, who wears the dust, the boots, the bravado and the rest as if they were designed for him alone.
And so begins Spanish filmmaker Mateo Gil's lightly rendered reimagining of the later days of Butch Cassidy, which expands on the rumors that the legendary outlaw and the Sundance Kid did not die in a 1908 shootout in Bolivia. In screenwriter Miguel Barros' reworking of the mythology, Sundance survived briefly but Cassidy lived into old age, hidden away in the Bolivian backcountry, making time for one last adventure.
Though Gil is primarily known as a screenwriter, most often in collaboration with Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar ("The Sea Inside" is their best-known work here), "Blackthorn" is a film of few words. Silence stretches across the movie like the plains and salt flats Blackthorn crosses. He's left his house and the girl behind and is on his way to see the now-grown boy who was raised as Sundance's son but may be his own.
It's all coming together as planned until an ambush relieves him of his cash and his horse and saddles him with Eduardo (the charismatic Eduardo Noriega), a younger, slicker version of himself. The film swings between Blackthorn's memories — which sketch in the alternative history with Nicolaj Coster-Waldau as young Cassidy, Padraic Delaney as Sundance and Dominique McElligott as Etta, the woman they both loved but Sundance won — and his current problems, resurrecting all the old tropes of the outlaw's code or the ways justice can test an older, wiser man.
The film is at its best as Blackthorn is forced to rethink things as a result of his uneasy alliance with Eduardo, with Noriega excellent as a reflection of the bandit's earlier self.
Stephen Rea turns up as Mackinley, a Pinkerton man and a Javert to Blackthorn's Butch, who never believed the last of the Wild Bunch died. He's an old drunk, long disgraced, whose path once again crosses Blackthorn's, bringing with it the possibility of redemption.
You can almost taste the grit, feel the heat as Blackthorn and Eduardo try to outride and outwit the Bolivian posse tracking them. Veteran cinematographer J.A. Ruiz Anchia ("Glengarry Glen Ross") captures all the harsh beauty that can be found in the vast stretches of desert and the endless sky.
The dialogue sometimes wavers and the plot doubles back on itself one too many times, and you can't help but wish Gil had asserted himself more on that front. As a director, he is still finding his way too, with the emotional pacing sometimes as rough as the trail his characters are riding.
Still, there is that allure of the Old West that is hard to resist, and there's plenty of grist in the story worth milling and mulling. If nothing else, the film reminds just how arresting an actor Shepard can be. Like Blackthorn, he's gotten only better with age.
'Blackthorn' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence and language)
Cast: Sam Shepard (James Blackthorn), Eduardo Noriega (Eduardo Apocada), Stephen Rea (Mackinley), Magaly Solier (Yana), Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (Young James), Padraic Delaney (Sundance), Dominique McElligott (Etta)
Credits: Directed by Mateo Gil; written by Miguel Barros; produced by Andres Santana, Ibon Cormenzana. A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 1:38
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