As noted counterfactual Western novelist Eli Cash might say, "Well, everyone knows Butch Cassidy died at San Vincente, Bolivia. What this movie Blackthorn presupposes is ... maybe he didn't?" Certainly the idea of an alternate-universe sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an eccentric one. But that's what Mateo Gil's film is. And for a while, it's tough to find good reason to spend time with a graying, bearded Butch (Sam Shepard) as he putters around in South America and writes letters to a young man who may or may not be his son. But once Cassidy decides to cash out of his horse-breeding business and ride back to America, Blackthorn starts to look and feel like a good old-fashioned Western.
By now it's obvious that all Westerns are old-fashioned, nostalgia-ridden, and as melancholy as an autumn sunset. They've been that way for the past four decades. They are to serious moviegoers what carpenter's planes are to antique tool enthusiasts — admired, prized, and perhaps overvalued for their throwback charm and careful craftsmanship. These films trot out into theaters, linger for a while, and then trot back off into the sunset. In good hands, though, their well-worn pleasures still thrill.
Blackthorn's plot is built from a missing fortune, some flashbacks to better days, and Cassidy's growing friendship with a shady new partner (Eduardo Noriega) who follows him north. But once our heroes try to shake a dozen bounty hunters by riding across some endless salt flats, the movie finds its course and sticks to it.
The sequence on the salt flats, which is staged and framed as a suicidal ritual of pursuit and evasion, is as effective as any action sequence I've seen this year. Working with a jagged, blank canvas, Gil uses horse carcasses and human corpses to create tension and depth in his images as the endless chase across this infernally white landscape drags on. Like Jim Jarmusch's great Western Dead Man, the gunplay here is strangely exciting, because it's often clumsy and unpredictable.
Nothing else in the film is as spectacular as this sequence, but Cassidy shares plenty of folk wisdom along the way — about responsibility, about going out with a bang, and about independence.
Blackthorn deserves a hushed "yee-haw."
Opening Friday, December 2nd
Studio on the Square