Tribeca Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | May 23, 2011
Director: Mateo Gil
Writer: Miguel Barros
Starring: Sam Shepard, Stephen Rea, Eduardo Noriega, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott
Spanish director Mateo Gil (screenwriter of Open Your Eyes and The Sea Inside) imagines a scenario in which Butch Cassidy did not die in a shootout with the Bolivian army in 1908; instead, Butch has retired from thievery and is living quietly in self-imposed seclusion under the pseudonym James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard) in a modest homestead in a secluded part of Bolivia, raising horses and enjoying occasional trysts with his maid-cum-lover, Yana (Magaly Solier). Blackthorn takes place in 1927 — and age has certainly gotten the better of Butch/James since George Roy Hill’s iconic film.
According to James, there are two moments in a man’s life: when he leaves his family and when he returns home. Via letters written to Etta Place’s son (whom James refers to as his nephew), we learn that James wishes to return to the United States to spend his dying years with his family — meaning Etta’s son (Etta has since died of TB). At various points of the narrative, we are shown flashbacks of when Butch Cassidy (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney), and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) were at their thieving prime; when Etta returned to America; and when Sundance died.
In final preparation for his long journey back to the United States, James travels across the Bolivian desert to close out his bank account (ironically complimenting the bank’s manager by remarking that he has never been so well received inside such an establishment) and sell off all of his horses except for the one he needs to ride back to his homestead.
Unfortunately, destiny weighs in and ensures that James will not have an easy go at leaving Bolivia. While traveling back across the Bolivian desert towards his homestead, James’ horse Cinco gets spooked by gunshots and runs away with his entire life’s savings ($6,000). Left with no other option, James reluctantly teams up with Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), a Spanish engineer, to assist him in recovering $50,000 that Eduardo stole from a local mine. Eduardo hid the loot and now he is presumably being chased by representatives of the mine owners. Soon the two men find themselves in an endurance race against time that, upon reaching the Bolivian salt flats, turns into a brilliantly conceived slow speed tortoise race.
Blackthorn is a profound meditation on the passing of time — specifically age and the past — while simultaneously discussing the significance of family, friendship and trust. Gil’s film is a nostalgic and faithful recycling of the golden age of Westerns (the one blatant exception, and Gil’s one major misstep, is Blackthorn‘s totally out of place soundtrack). Ruíz Anchía’s cinematography imagines Bolivia as a wide open country with endless deserts and expansive plains — a landscape that eerily echos the American Southwest that James knew quite well back when he was Butch.
Shepard delivers a grizzled yet beautifully understated turn as James — a man whose world-weariness has been further exasperated during his time spent living completely off the grid and a man who may never be able to escape his past (including his nemesis Mackinley [Stephen Rea]).