Director Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn is a revisionist western starring the late Sam Shepard, that supposes that Butch Cassidy didn’t die in his infamous shootout with the Bolivian army (alongside The Sundance Kid) in 1908, but that he lived in the country under the name of James Blackthorn for another twenty years, before deciding to return to the United States.
The 2011 film opens with Blackthorn/Cassidy (Shepard) putting his affairs in order as he prepares to return to the US. He sells his horses and empties his bank account, but on the way back to his home he is ambushed by Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega) who is attempting to steal his horse; however the animal bolts leaving the two men stranded in the desert. It transpires that Eduardo has stolen $50,000 from a tyrannical mine owner, and he now needs Blackthorn’s ( Cassidy’s?) help to get his money and find a way out of the wilderness. The duo strike up an unlikely friendship as they are pursued across the landscape by posse, an event which takes Cassidy (Balckthorn?) back to his youthful days as a wanted man. During their adventure Blackthorn (Cassidy?) meets Detective Mackinley (Stephen Rea) – the man who was trailing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in their years as bank robbers. Mackinley’s admiration and anger towards his old foe is evident, but both he and Cassidy (Blackthorn?) know that they are relics from a time long gone, a simpler time, when even criminals had honour.
Blackthorn is beautifully shot (it looks glorious on Blu-Ray), and well acted, with Shepard’s grizzled charisma anchoring the film, giving it an old-school charm that drives it forward. Noriega is also solid as the cocky upstart, a new kind of criminal that attempts to show “an old dog new tricks”, while Stephen Rea’s performance helps to bolster the film during its second half. The Irish actor delivers his finest performance in years, perfectly balancing his role between comedy and drama, as a man who has fallen into disrepair.
Sure, the film is front-loaded in the action stakes, and the last act lowers the tension levels, whilst upping the melancholy. Like the recent western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Blackthorn isn’t a film about the past – it’s about the present, and how things aren’t as good as they once were. Ain’t that the truth?