Friday, March 30, 2012



The Western film genre is played out, and I say that as one who has often enjoyed it. The industry can make a proficient revival once in a while, like Unforgiven and Open Range. But they are old wine in new bottles.

Blackthorn, which as far as I know never had a theatrical release, is now out in a spectacular Blu-ray transfer. A kind of "post-Western Western" in an exotic locale, it both reminds us of the pleasures we enjoyed before the cowboys-and-outlaws movie became hackneyed and combines those with a strange (to North American eyes) place and a relatively recent period (1927, with flashbacks to the early years of the 20th century).

The premise is a little gimmicky perhaps: Butch Cassidy survived the gunfight we assumed he had perished in and is now a small-time rancher in Bolivia. A lonely old man, he decides to sell his horses and return to the United States. Needless to say, his course does not run smoothly, particularly when he becomes unavoidably teamed up with a Spanish mining engineer turned crook.


But the plot gimmick is useful; since everybody knows the famous movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it avoids a lot of potentially tedious exposition, and we can get right on with the story. Besides, several well-directed flashbacks to Butch and Sundance are among Blackthorn's most poignant scenes.

Playwright and actor Sam Shepard as Butch, who now goes under the cover name of Blackthorn, gives a finely spun portrayal of a man who sees his end clearly before him, but still has personal business to attend to. He's weary but not cranky -- the character Jeff Bridges should have been in True Grit instead of letting himself go cartoonish.

Mateo Gil (no, I never heard of him before either) directed this Spanish production, and he got restrained realism out of everyone in his cast ... except, unfortunately, the other main characters played by Eduardo Noreiga as the Spanish ex-mining engineer and Stephen Rea in the admittedly thankless part of an old boozehound and former Butch Cassidy hunter, who coincidentally runs into the aged Butch.

Gil and his cinematographer, Juan Luiz Anchia, have made the most of the Bolivian landscapes. I've rarely seen such striking exterior shots, and they're not just pictorialism to plug gaps between action sequences; they set moods and become characters in their own right.

Judging from the lack of interest Blackthorn has generated so far, it will probably drop quickly into the sinkhole. Watch it while it's available, preferably in Blu-ray and on a big screen.


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