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Review: ‘Blackthorn’

Sam Shepard Rides Tall

Above: Sam Shepard plays Butch Cassidy as an old man in "Blackthorn."

What if Butch and Sundance didn't die in that standoff with the Bolivian military in 1908? That's the starting point for the new western "Blackthorn" (opening October 14 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters).

The 1968 film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," taking its cue from reports at the time, left us assuming that Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were killed in South American in 1908. But no verified remains were found and rumors circulated that perhaps they did not die as reported. Spanish director Mateo Gil takes those rumors as fact and spins a tale speculating what might have become of Butch Cassidy if he had lived to a ripe old age.

Eduarado (Eduardo Noriega) in "Blackthorn."

Magnolia Pictures

Above: Eduarado (Eduardo Noriega) in "Blackthorn."

We find Butch going under the name of Blackthorn (Sam Shepard) and living in South America quite contentedly on a small ranch. But Blackthorn, now grizzled and old, is feeling a little homesick and wants to return to the U.S. one last time before he dies to connect with family. So he cashes out most of his belongings and heads off for the U.S. But he crosses paths with Eduarado (Eduardo Noriega), who would, in today's terms, be likely labeled a white collar criminal. Eduardo upsets Blackthorn's plans and the two end up as unlikely and rather reluctant partners.

"Blackthorn" is not as good as the recent Australian western, "The Proposition," but it serves up a more conventional western anchored by a splendid performance from Sam Shepard. "The Proposition" was a great revisionist western that stripped away any sense of mythology about the glory of the old west be it in America or the Outback. That film presented a brutal, unpleasant picture but on that crackled with energy and vivid details. "Blackthorn" favors myths of the old west and an affection for old school values. So Blackthorn is the logical extension of the Butch Cassidy we got in the 1968 film when Paul Newman made him a lovable bandit. Shepard -- who has essayed such iconic characters as pilot Chuck Yeager -- comes across as a man of integrity who only robbed the rich and never shot anyone who didn't have it coming. As played by Shepard, Blackthorn is a man who's smart enough to appreciate his good fortune and just lay low. He's proud that he's been his own man and not taken orders from anyone. So we're given Butch/Blackthorn as western legend.

"Blackthorn" suggests that Butch Cassidy did not die in Bolivia in 1908.

Magnolia Pictures

Above: "Blackthorn" suggests that Butch Cassidy did not die in Bolivia in 1908.

Shepard, who is also an extremely gifted playwright, is strong enough to make this performance work and to win us over. In the end, the film champions his values (even though he's a criminal) and mourns the loss of men like him, men who are good to their word and know how to survive. The film hints at ideas brought more fully to life in "The Proposition," most notably the notion that progress can bring some ugly things with it. In "Blackthorn," Butch represents the Old West, the grizzled past. Eduardo represents something new, a man more slippery, deceptive, and conniving with no sympathy or concern for anyone but himself. The film gets some mileage from the contrast between these two men and their eventual confrontation. The friction between these two men is then contrasted with Butch's friendship with the Sundance Kid that's told in flashbacks.

With "Blackthorn" (rated R for violence and language), director Mateo Gil and writer Miguel Barros deliver a solid western that's as simple, straightforward, and unadorned as its title character. It's well crafted as opposed to passionate but Shepard has such a no-nonsense, commanding screen presence that he makes the film well worth checking out. Stephen Rea also makes a noteworthy supporting appearance as one of the Pinkerton Detectives who had tracked Butch in his heyday.

Companion viewing: "The Proposition," "Unforgiven," "The Wild Bunch"

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