DVD Review – Blackthorn (2011)

Blackthorn, 2011.

Directed by Mateo Gil.
Starring Sam Shepard, Eduaro Noriega, Stephean Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney and Padraic Delaney.


Surviving his stand-off with the Bolivian military, Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) now goes by the name of James Blackthorn. Living out his days in a secluded Bolivian village, Blackthorn decides to return to the US to see his family once more, but on the way he is thrust into one last adventure following a chance encounter with an ambitious young criminal.

Blackthorn, last year’s Western from Spanish director Mateo Gil (writer of several Spanish films including Abre Los Ojos, which was adapted into 2001’s Vanilla Sky), is a reinterpretation of the story of historical bandits Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a twist of speculative history: in this case, what if the pair had survived their face-off with the Bolivian army in San Vicente?

The film’s answer is that Butch Cassidy (played by Sam Shepherd; Black Hawk Down) hid within rural Bolivia and, using the alias of James Blackthorn, became a fairly successful horse rancher. After twenty years, Blackthorn/Cassidy appears tired and lonely, and, at the start of the film, decides to return to America to meet the son of Etta Place (an accomplice from his outlaw days). However, this journey is hampered by a number of obstacles, most notably in the form of Spanish engineer Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega; Vantage Point), who attempts to steal Blackthorn’s horse, which is also carrying his life savings. Having failed in his attempt, and on the run from a posse, Eduardo makes a deal with Blackthorn, agreeing to give him half of $50,000 Eduardo has stolen from a mine. Unable to resist the temptation, Blackthorn teams up with Eduardo and returns to his bandit roots, but where is the money really from and is Eduardo telling the truth?

Blackthorn consists of typical western fare, with gun fights, horse riding, gun fights while riding horses, etc, but is of a high quality. A particularly stunning set-piece takes place on the Uyuni salt flats where Blackthorn and Eduardo confront the posse pursuing them (while riding their horses and fighting with guns). In fact, the photography is amazing: shot on location in Bolivia, there are sweeping shots of lush green valleys, expansive deserts and the aforementioned bright white salt flats. For scenery porn, it almost matches Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, and is much more vibrant than Ethan and Joel Coen’s True Grit.

Along with the brilliant visuals, there is some great acting. Eduardo Noriega brings plenty of passion and energy to his role, in contrast to Shepherd’s stern and controlled performance, and is also rather easy on the eyes. Sam Shepherd is able project menace and vulnerability in his grizzled yet knackered bandit. Blackthorn’s loneliness and nostalgia is also communicated through voice-over as he discusses the importance of friendship, as well as a number of sequences that are memories from his Butch and Sundance days, which are notable for featuring Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones) as a young Butch Cassidy. Shepherd is the best thing in the movie, due to his presence and manner. The role of James Blackthorn is fairly similar to that of Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, yet Shepherd brings far greater realism and pathos to his role than Jeff Bridges did to Cogburn.

That’s the second time I’ve made a comparison to True Grit and there is a reason for it. Both films are very similar in theme and tone. They are essentially farewell letters to the Wild West: True Grit tried to present a darker, grittier side to the cowboy mythos, while Blackthorn attempts to provide an appropriate end for Butch and Sundance, a pair of figures ingrained into the public conscious by films like the 1969 classic featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But where True Grit is fairly critical of the Wild West because of its violent nature, Blackthorn is much more nostalgic.

Unfortunately, that is where the comparisons end. While the story in True Grit is nuanced and complex (like most Coen movies), the story of Blackthorn is much more linear and rote. This is the main letdown of the film: as a character piece, it is quite interesting, but the story is too straightforward with only one major twist. The memory sequences, featuring Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) and Dominic McElligott (Moon) are intended to provide background information, context and character detail, but are distractions from the main narrative, and feel like an attempt to pad the film-time and ultimately are not used effectively.

However, despite the beautiful cinematography and the great dynamic and chemistry between Shepherd and Noriega, as well as a few strong performances from Megaly Solier as Blackthorn’s mistress and Stephen Rea as a drunk Irish detective, the story and awkward pacing lets the whole experience down. Adding to this problem was that, and perhaps this is an unfair criticism, the scale of production seemed rather small. It at times it felt like watching a TV movie, rather than a feature film, as if most of the money had been spent on scouting and shooting on location or on hiring Shepherd, leaving little for everything else. But, overall, I was thoroughly engaged and entertained, and would highly recommend Blackthorn.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Luke Graham is a writer and graduate. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.

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