Nothing strips the romance from a Western quite like Butch Cassidy showing up at a bank to make a withdrawal from his savings account. That’s one of the earliest scenes (pictured at right) in the weary, melancholic and elegiac Blackthorn, which revisits the Cassidy and Sundance myth and rewrites a new last act for George Roy Hill’s classic: instead of meeting their ends at the hands of the Bolivian Army in 1908, the outlaws live on. This movie finds Butch in 1927: grizzled, calling himself by the alias of the title, and raising horses on a ranch in the rugged mountains of Bolivia—the American West’s erstwhile wild terrain rediscovered South of the equator.
Blackthorn revises the revisions, embracing many facets of the mythos rejected by most modern, progressive-minded Westerns: our star (Sam Shepard) is an individualist, fiercely independent, a wise old-timer, an anachronism with Jeremiah Johnson’s beard, The Man with No Name’s poncho, and John Wayne’s sharp, beady eyes. He teams up with a younger fellow, the Spaniard and would-be bandit Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), forming a reluctant partnership born of necessity: during a botched stick-up, Eduardo scares away Blackthorn’s horse, which carried the retired outlaw’s savings, but the European claims he’s willing to share thousands he stole from a mining concern and hid in a nearby abandoned shaft. Their dynamic is as young as True Grit, and as old as The Searchers. (Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía, a regular collaborator with David Mamet, frames many, many shots as silhouettes within frames—like doors—echoing the most famous image from John Ford’s film.)
Director Mateo Gil, best known for screenwriting The Sea Inside and Vanilla Sky-precursor Open Your Eyes, makes Bolivia beautiful, all twilights and horizons, sun-scorched rock and lush rainforest. But, despite a climax of aestheticized violence, he is not sentimental for the West; he paints both outlaws and lawmen, the genre’s hoary icons, as pathetic: how cool is it never to rest, whether hiding or hunting? To age so miserably? The film’s title takes the bandit’s latest alias, rather than calling itself Cassidy Lives!, because it’s about smothering legends, not celebrating them. At the same time, Blackthorn does exhibit a fondness for something bygone: a late, devastating twist shows that Gil and screenwriter Miguel Barros mourn for the uncompromised morality possessed by the old-timers, even Cassidy. This sad movie is made saddest by the nihilism it sees in the next generation of bandits—and, possibly, of filmmakers.
Blackthorn screens tonight at 5:30 p.m. and again on April 29. More info here.