Thursday, December 22, 2011


The Western movie might be an undead film genre, but that's certainly not stopping filmmakers from creating a great cowboy movie every so often.  2010 had the grandly memorable "True Grit", 2008 had "3:10 to Yuma".   2011 needed a great Western movie, and two movies came forward to answer the call.  One was "Cowboys & Aliens", an utterly forgettable silly SciFi movie with a gaggle of movie stars and a ridiculous budget.  The other was "Blackthorn", a slow beautiful movie that you've probably never heard of.  And that's a shame, because "Blackthorn" is easily one of the best movies I've seen all year, melancholic and gorgeous with the heart of a true classic.

"Blackthorn" is kind of an unofficial sequel to the famous Robert Redford-Paul Newman masterpiece "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".  Bizarrely for somebody who pretends to be a film fan, I haven't seen that movie, but its sitting on my Netflix queue now.  The main concept between "Blackthorn" is that Butch Cassidy survived the famous outlaw duo's death and has been living quietly in Bolivia under the name of 'James Blackthorn' for twenty years.  During his attempt to travel home to America, he runs into a Spanish outlaw and goes on one final adventure in the fantastic wilderness of the Andes Mountains.  The plot may be a basic chase adventure, but the results are a stark movie that takes it time, builds a great atmosphere, and becomes a walking landscape painting.

All in all, I'd say that "Blackthorn" is arguably the most beautiful-looking movie of 2011.  This is the quintessential Western classic, all of which is made extremely unfortunate because I know for a fact you've never heard of this movie before.  Its a Spanish production (though shot 80% in English) that was released first on iTunes of all places, and got a minor theatrical run in October.  Even I missed it, which is a tragedy, because this is a great movie that deserved better.  So I guess its up to me, little 'ol me, to sing "Blackthorn"'s praises.  I'm not the singer this movie needs, my range is pitiful, and I'm frequently out of tune.  And I drive metaphorical conceits straight into the grave.  Let's hear the music.

"Blackthorn" is notable for being perhaps the most bilingual movie I've ever seen.  Perhaps it might be the semi-legal bootleg version I watched online, but none of the Spanish lines were subtitled.  There are whole scenes in full Spanish without a single word exchanged in English.  Luckily I have at a marginal understanding of the Spanish language, so I was able to follow most of those scenes.  I really do have to respect a movie to have that much faith in its viewers that they'll be able to follow full non-English conversations.  However, even I got lost a few times, and somebody with no knowledge of Spanish at all would be get really frustrated.  Some people are so pigheaded they can't even be bothered to read subtitles in the first place, assuming that when you watch a movie you're not supposed to use your brain.  Since all the most important conversations and lines are in English, you don't have anything major to worry about.  Luckily if you have a real legal DVD, I'm sure you can get it properly subtitled.  I'm just being punished for my moral failings.

To beef up the recurring plot line, the movie is broken up with half a dozen flashbacks to the young versions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  These pieces exist mostly to explain the backstory of Butch and his great outlaw status.  Disappointingly for me, these aren't actually scenes taken from the 1969 original, however, they are very well acted.  Young Butch is actually played by the same actor as Jaime Lannister from the HBO series.  I wish the flashbacks were a bit more detailed - they leave out the explosive final charge from the movie - but they're necessary to understand the story and why Butch is such a sad old man.  Even his Pinkerton foe from the past is full of sadness over the awful waste that is banditry, he just wants to live his life quietly and forget old wounds.

Sam Shepard plays old Butch, and is the main character of the movie.  His gruff old badass cowboy persona is a lot like Jeff Bridges from "True Grit", only a lot less drunk and actually comprehensible.  Jeff Bridges' main acting technique in "True Grit" was to fill his mouth with straw, damned be the audience who cannot understand a word he says.  Even though he's lived outside of history for years, he wants to go back home to America to his lone living relative - who may or may not actually be his son.  "There are only two moments in life, when you leave home and when you return.  Everything else is just 'in between'."  Since this movie is mainly a character study in Butch Cassidy himself, the movie is mainly a choice for him.  Will he go back to his old life of banditry or find a new path?  What has he learned over these twenty years in the mountains?  I do have to wonder how much better this movie would have been with Paul Newman playing the main role, but Sam Shepard so rules his part that I cannot imagine anyone else as Butch Cassidy.

However, the true star of "Blackthorn" is Bolivia itself.  From the hills to the salt pans, this movie relishes in engorging itself on all the natural scenery of South America.  The pace of the movie is designed specifically to take in everything there is to see, which is definitely a plus because these are easily some of the most amazing places on Earth.  Any true Western is less about the people than world they inhabit, and this movie plays it beautifully.  I am totally mesmerized by the cinematography here; "Blackthorn" makes you fall in love with its subject matter.

Man, I really want to go to Bolivia now...

The movie has its dark turns here and there, but there actually aren't many gunfights.  This is a movie whose action is from the characters themselves, not with guns.  Basically its the polar opposite to "Cowboys & Aliens", a movie which was entirely action and barely any character at all.  Its clear which one I'd choose for a Western.  "Blackthorn" is a great underrated movie in a year full of great underrated movies.  Its a perfect cowboy movie.


  1. FIRST COMMENT AGAIN, but seriously what would you rate it from one to ten, I have less time to waste than usual.

  2. @Br3admax: I don't give number scores. If you want to know what I think of a movie, you have to read the review. I can't simplify a complex reaction to a mere number.

  3. I totally agreed with you, and will see this movie again. Because just deserves. A instant classic.