What if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in Bolivia in 1908? What if he changed his name, switched bank robberies for the quiet life, and saw out his final years in seclusion as a horse trader? This is the idea which fuels Blackthorn as it catches up with Cassidy, now calling himself James Blackthorn, in 1927 aged 61. He’s another of cinema’s ageing outlaws to sit alongside Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, a relic of the West like John Wayne’s John Bernard Brooks, and much like those men he’s played by someone whose career has been very much connected to the Western down the years.
Since his earliest days as a playwright Sam Shepard has been repeatedly drawn to the mythology of the Old West and its gradual disintegration. You only need to look at the titles: True West; Geography of a Horse Dreamer; the 1976 operetta The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill; his collaboration with Patti Smith, Cowboy Mouth. Much of his big screen career has been based on similar preoccupations. Original screenplays such as those for Paris, Texas, Far North and Don’t Come Knocking all bear the residue of the West, whilst his performance choices have their share of contemporary rural tales (Heartland, Thunderheart) and genuine Westerns, whether respectful (playing Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) or not (the Penelope Cruz-Salma Hayek comedy Bandidas).
Blackthorn undoubtedly falls on the respectful side of the spectrum. Less elegant than Andrew Dominik’s James biopic (for all those open spaces essentially a chamber piece) it more greatly resembles such recent entries into the genre as Kevin Costner’s Open Range and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa. It has their elegiac tone but, like them, never sacrifices the essential genre demands. Much like William Munny being called away from his pig farm to become a man of violence once more, James Blackthorn’s quiet life takes an unexpected turn. He intends to break his self-imposed exile from the United States to see the son he’s never met, but after a chance encounter with a Spaniard he finds himself being pursued through Bolivia’s mountains, salt flats and tiny villages, just as he and the Sundance Kid had been twenty years earlier.
In many ways the Spaniard becomes a surrogate Sundance to Blackthorn even though he’s not privy to his real identity. There is a sense that Cassidy has become reawakened through this man. Not to the point where he will start robbing banks again (he is in his sixties, after all), but there’s definitely a rekindling of the spirit. The old outlaw lifestyle of living by your wits, out in the open and with the threat of death never too far away, has a greater appeal than seeing out his years in seclusion. It’s also a much better way for a man like Butch Cassidy to die. By contrast the Spaniard is less controlled, less disciplined, less schooled in the ways of the outlaw. He has neither the dignity nor the experience, which makes this pair more odd couple than firm friends, even as mutual respect and companionship grows.
The Spaniard is played by Eduardo Noriega, perhaps best known for Open Your Eyes and The Devil’s Backbone. He acquits himself well in the role and fits well into this Western landscape. Sam Shepard, of course, slots in naturally; watching Blackthorn it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could play an ageing Butch Cassidy. Special mention, however, should be reserved for Stephen Rea who enlivens the second half of the picture as McKinley, a former Pinkerton man turned alcoholic also trapped in some kind of self-imposed Bolivian exile. There’s the potential for this to be a very showy turn akin to Richard Harris’ English Bob in Unforgiven, but Rea refuses to showboat.
His decision chimes well with Blackthorn as a whole. This isn’t an overt picture, oftentimes it’s very quiet. Even the sound design backs this up, contrasting muted conversations with the sudden jolting rings of gunfire. Director Mateo Gil (who has previously worked in various capacities on a number of Alejandro Amenábar features) recognises the strength of his performers and the landscape he is shooting in and as such doesn’t require any additional bells or whistles. He lets this tale speak for itself and we should be glad that he has done so. Blackthorn may ultimately feel more of a minor pleasure than a major one as a result, but that’s no bad thing. The Western is scarce these days and whilst some truly great examples do still come along (Deadwood, The Assassination of Jesse James) I’m more than happy to take these comparatively minor pleasures when they appear. Recent years have provided us with the likes of Seraphim Falls, True Grit, Meek’s Cutoff and now Blackthorn - that’s a perfectly respectable means of keeping the genre (barely) alive.
Blackthorn arrives onto UK Blu-ray courtesy of Chelsea Films. No extras whatsoever on their disc but they do offer up a fine presentation. Preserving its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film is treated to an AVC 1080p encode that makes the most of the stunning Bolivian vistas. Detail is excellent to the point where we can see every last bit of dirt and dust on our character’s clothing, blacks are solid without every sacrificing any of that detail, and there’s a light grain evident throughout. The occasional flashbacks to Cassidy’s earlier years are somewhat brighter, more saturated and slightly softer, but it’s safe to assume that this is in keeping with cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía’s intent. The soundtrack is available in both DTS-HD 5.1 and PCM stereo. As crisp and clear as the image it has no difficulties with the quieter dialogue scenes or the occasional piercing instances of gunfire which pepper the action scenes. English subtitles for the Spanish dialogue are optional.