From his play True West to his performance as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Sam Shepard has come to embody post-cowboy rugged independence, and his iconic presence gives weight to Blackthorn, turning a speculative biopic into an elegiac portrait of life after infamy. Spanish director Mateo Gil’s intimate Western finds the notorious Butch Cassidy living quietly on his Bolivian ranch nearly twenty years after a well-publicized death in San Vicente. James Blackthorn (Shepard) is so comfortable in his anonymity that he jokes about no longer being a wanted man, telling a bank manager that he “can’t remember being so well-received before.”
Settling his affairs before returning to the U.S., Blackthorn bid an unsentimental farewell to his Quechuan lover Yana (Magaly Solier) and legitimately withdrew his savings from the bank. Spotting a suspicious campfire, he comes upon Eduardo Apocada (Eduardo Noriega), who’s obviously on the run. Their encounter leaves Blackthorn without a horse or the money for his new life. He strikes up a deal with Apocada, an engineer who pilfered funds from his employer and stashed it in an abandoned mine. The reluctant duo sets off to find the cache – with a posse in hot pursuit.
Teaming up with Apocada triggers memories for Blackthorn, which screenwriter Miguel Barros constructs as flashbacks to when Cassidy (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) chose self-imposed exile in South America with Sundance (Padraic Delaney) and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott), the woman they both loved. The young outlaws display an easy camaraderie and a brash levity that’s become the default mode for Western partnerships since 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even when they’re cornered by Mackinley (Stephen Rea), an operative for the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, the trio treats it as an elaborate joke.
While Blackthorn quickly steps back into his old boots, it takes him longer to realize how much he’s changed since being Cassidy. A long isolation has made Blackthorn defiant and vulnerable: he’ll gladly torture his forced traveling companion by singing the same song for days, but is unable to see the charming Apocada’s duplicitous nature. It’s a deadly blind spot for a man with such a powerful survival instinct. Shepard brings gravitas and humor to Blackthorn, which makes the character’s contradictions more palpable. Blackthorn wants one last great adventure so much that he’s willing to follow a partner he can’t trust to a dubious payoff.
The scenes of Blackthorn and Apocada making their way across ruggedly beautiful Bolivia is a great use of this uncommon landscape. When they’re faced with salt flats, the retired outlaw expresses admiration: “I like these places, can’t be used – no owners.” That wide open expanse comes at a price, as the men (and their horses) learn while crossing the unforgiving terrain. Gil and Shepard strip the Western down to its basic elements: man versus nature, myth versus reality. In Blackthorn, Butch Cassidy isn’t a larger-than-life legend, but simply a man who can no longer outrun his past.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on October 7, 2011 by Magnolia Pictures