It’s obvious from the start where Blackthorn is going; given the grim, elegiac cynicism of modern Westerns, which these days all seem to be mourning the demise of an old way of life rather than celebrating or even just comfortably exploring the past, there’s only one possible ending for a story about the redemptive power of friendship. Which means it’s up to director Mateo Gil (screenwriter of Abre Los Ojos and The Sea Inside) and writer Miguel Barros to make the execution count. And they do so ably. Blackthorn could use more depth and less of a sense of weary inevitability, but it never lacks for the arid, vista-prone beauty of a classic Western, or for a sense of lived-in wear and tear that remains convincing even though it’s more stylized than realistic.
Following up the long-simmering legend that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid secretly survived the 1908 Bolivian shootout where they supposedly died, Barros’ script places Cassidy in a Bolivian backwoods hideaway in 1927, under the name James Blackthorn. Sam Shepard plays Blackthorn as a latter-day Jeff Bridges character, all vaguely amused, rough-and-shaggy irascibility. When he loses his horse—and with its saddlebags, the fortune that was going to take him back to America—to an accident involving young Spanish criminal-on-the-run Eduardo Noriega, Shepard has every reason to shoot Noriega out of pique. Instead, he takes him under his wing and they gradually become traveling companions, friends, and partners in crime.
Blackthorn could stand to deal with Noriega more generously; an awful lot of the movie features him making ill-fated mistakes and miserably pleading for his life, or at best, sweating out the moments before his looming death with unconcealed terror. As a result, his relationship with Shepard is never one of equals, and it’s hard not to notice that the one white man in the country (apart from Stephen Rea as a grizzled ex-Pinkerton agent who serves as Shepard’s Javert) is always the most capable and knowledgeable in every situation. Gil and Barros leaven that imbalance somewhat by repeatedly returning to the past, where a younger Cassidy (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) pals around with the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney), forming the idea of friendship that informs the later relationship between Shepard and Noriega—mistakes, betrayals, and all. The links between the past and present are never overt or overemphasized, any more than Gil and Barros overplay the connection between the wide spaces, stunning scenery, and spare soundtrack, and Shepard’s equally unreconstructed, old-world hero. The story’s beats are modern, but the setting, visuals, pacing, and protagonist all capture classic past cinema, if not classic past innocence.