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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Blackthorn - the best western of recent years.

When a film this good fails to find an audience it really does make you despair of the entire movie business - OK it's a western, so it was never going to hit the mainstream but for it to be largely ignored is a pretty sad sign of the tastes of the average movie goer. For fucks sake this is a better western that recent mega hit True Grit. In fact this movie may even be on a level footing with the last true western masterpiece, Unforgiven.

In fact Blackthorn holds much in common with Unforgiven - both are meditations on getting old, on times changing and leaving folk behind, but Blackthorn AKA Butch Cassidy just might be a more appealing character than William Munny.

'I've been my own man - you can't get richer than that.'

The film runs with the idea that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escaped the ambush in Bolivia that ended George Roy Hill's now iconic 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid And we are introduced to Butch, now an elderly man living under the name of James Blackthorn in Bolivia. We find out in flashback scenes what happened directly following the shoot out in Bolovia in with Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau playing a younger Butch for these scenes. Sundance is played by Padraic Delany while Dominique  McElligott play Etta James. These flashback scenes are only a small part of the movie but they are structured skilfully throughout the movie to provide a compelling second narrative thread

'Friendship is the most valuable thing in the world.'

The main narrative sees Butch/Blackthorn getting ready to return to the United States after so many years in exile, but a likeable young outlaw changes his plans in a series of events that results in Butch losing all his money. It seems the young man is on the run from a ruthless band of mine owners whom he stole a vast amount of money from. He knows where the money is and tells Butch that if he helps him get it back, he will split it with him. That's the basic plot but the script is no one trick pony and there are several plot twists that will floor the viewer on first viewing. 

The final scenes in which Butch restores his now tarnished legend are underplayed and all the more effective for it. This is not your standard gung ho western, but a well thought out, intelligent movie that will, in time, find itself amongst the top placings in future Best Western  listings.

Most of the movie is set in post first world war Bolivia but the director gives us scenery that would not have been out of place in a John Ford western. The scenes on Bolivia's Salt Flats are excellent and, on a good large screen set up - absolutely breathtaking. Butch and his Sundance substitute are fleeing their pursuers in scenes that are reminiscent of the super posse in George Roy Hill's 1969 classic, though there's no jumping into raging rivers.

In fact some have suggested that this is an unofficial sequel to the 1969 movie - Hill's film ended with the death of Butch and Sundance at the hands of the Bolivian police in 1908 after they'd been robbing banks in Latin America for the previous decade. The event was recorded with a shot of the pair defiantly brandishing guns. However it is believed that Butch and Sundance might have survived the shootout in San Vicente and secretly returned to the States. There is little hard evidence for this, but then there is no specific proof of their deaths, and in Blackthorn, Mateo Gil, the Spanish film-maker best known for his screenplays for Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar, offers a fascinating imaginary sequel to the story of Butch and Sundance. Though this film is far darker in tone than the Newman/Redford movie but it does, for awhile at least, echo the buddy/buddy aspects of that movie.

I picked up the budget DVD in my local supermarket where it sat alongside a mess of cheaply made movie, and I picked it up merely because it was a western - I wasn't expecting great things but as soon as I slipped this movie into the player I was mesmerised. This is a truly excellent film - from start to finish it is nothing short of compelling, and for a movie set in Bolivia several decades after the American West became civilised, it feels like a real western. The script is excellent, Sam Shepard is superb, as are the rest of the cast.

The movie proves that in terms of making money hype is more important than the quality of the movie - as I've said I consider this to be far superior to the Coen's high profile, True Grit and yet that movie made a mint, while Blackthorn slipped by unnoticed. Sam Shepard's performance here shows far more nuance than Jeff Bridges managed as Rooster Cogburn and the Spanish director, bringing far less baggage to his movie than the Coens brought to theirs, gives us a first class western experience.

The film will delight western fans, but it should also appeal to anyone who likes good cinema, regardless of genre. 


  

2 comments:

Chap O'Keefe said...

I ran a piece about this movie in the Hoofprints section of Black Horse Extra a while back, but I have to say I haven't come across it as a cinema release or a DVD where I live. It always did sound promising from what coverage it did get on the internet.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

It really is quite excellent.