Review: “Blackthorn”

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1. Sometimes I sort of wish no one had ever "reinvented" the Western. I liked the Western just fine as it was. There's an inherent hokiness to the Western that can either be taken with the appropriate straightforward cheekiness (pretty much everything John Wayne did save "The Searchers" and maybe "True Grit") or subverted into something profound and/or ultraviolent (John Ford, Sam Peckinpah). But now, when you make a Western, it has to be portentous and muddy and "dark" and have a trailer scored by one of those late-in-life Johnny Cash albums produced by Rick Rubin. Everything has to be this life-and-death existential struggle, as if true godlessness and evil could only be faced down and vanquished in the desert. I love Westerns, but today, they're just so serious. I'm not sure why you get extra philosophical import just because your protagonist happens to be on a horse.

2. "Blackthorn" has this problem too. It tells the story of a late-in-life Butch Cassidy -- who ended up not dying with the Sundance Kid after all, in fact living until he ended up as old as Sam Shepard -- who broods, laments and wrestles with questions of death and regret. I don't know about you, but that's not what I want my Butch Cassidy to be doing: I want my Butch Cassidy, whatever his age, to be raising hell and robbing banks and causin' ruckuses. And Cassidy does have an adventure in "Blackthorn," and it's actually kind of a fun one ... but the movie still feels so obligated to be A Serious Western that it weighs everything down. C'mon: Let Butch have an adventure already!

3. The Blackthorn of the title is Cassidy's alias, one he uses while living in Bolivia, quietly running a ranch and falling in love with a local woman whose name might as well be Local Woman. He decides, now that he has been in hiding long enough, to return to the United States to pay a visit to a boy living there, whose parents he was friends with. (It won't take you very long to figure out who those parents were.) So he kisses his woman, packs up his horse and all his cash and heads out. Unfortunately for Butch, he runs into Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), who accidentally scares off Butch's horse and his life savings. Eduardo says he's on the run from a crew of killers hired by an evil bank that closed down a local mine, or something, it's a bit vague. So the two men strike a deal: Butch will help Eduardo go find loot he has buried and protect it, and Eduardo (who doesn't know Butch is Butch) will give him half.

4. That's more than enough plot, really: All we really need is Butch and his comrade crossing the desert plains, gamblin', fightin', shootin' and ropin'. (They did not have the letter G in Westerns.) But the movie keeps getting bogged down in its own attempted gravity, so we have two or three more plot twists than we need, a completely extraneous character played warmly but unnecessarily by Stephen Rea and, worst, flashback sequences to when Butch and the Sundance Kid were together and on the run. These scenes are ill-advised, to say the least, not because we don't care, but because, well, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and that's it and that's all and end of story. No offense to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Padraic Delaney, who seem like competent enough actors, but c'mon: Asking us to imagine Sam Shepard as an older Butch Cassidy is one thing, but having two callow young actors play two of the most iconic characters in recent movie history is putting your actors in a situation in which they are destined to fail. All the background scenes should have been dropped: Let us just see Butch, now, and his new adventures.

5. Shepard, as you might suspect, is a terrific Butch In Winter, weathered but still smart, savvy and, deep down, oddly optimistic about the world, in spite of it all. I wouldn't give up Shepard's writing for anything, but it is a shame he has acted so sporadically in recent years, and it's nice to see him showing up more of late. It's a perfect part for him, and "Blackthorn" provides considerable pleasure just in watching Shepard ride a horse and bark around. But there isn't much depth to "Blackthorn," which would be fine if it didn't try to pretend it did. I'm not saying we need our Western cowboys to start walking around in blue tassels or anything, but I do wish they would loosen up and let themselves have more fun. The only way they trust cowboys to be fun anymore is if you throw in aliens and, truth be told, that wasn't all that much fun either.

Grade: B-