JDIFF 2012 REVIEW – Blackthorn

What would have happened if Butch Cassidy had faked his death in Bolivia? That is what Blackthorn sets out to explore. The famed outlaw is living a quiet life in Bolivia, under the assumed named James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard). Blackthorn decides to head back to America to catch up with Ryan, the person that he calls his nephew and along the way, crosses paths with Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega) a man on the run.

It is always interesting to imagine what would have happened to historical characters who live on in infamy if they had not actually died as we thought they had. Blackthorn sets out to examine the final days of the man known to the world as Butch Cassidy. Sam Shepard gives a wonderfully understated performance as the title character; a man who has given up his life of crime but knows that it could catch up with him at any time. Shepard allows silence to speak for the character and gives the impression that every movie Blackthorn makes is carefully considered.

The film is not one that hangs upon the story, it focuses on the landscape and the desolation of the places that Blackthorn finds himself. This country is incredibly beautiful, but is deadly to those who do not respect him. This works as both a comment on the country and character, and underlines the emptiness that Blackthorn feels in his forced isolation.

This is a Western, but it is also a story of redemption. When Blackthorn learns that the man he has helped through the desert has stolen money from innocent people, he dispenses justice without thought for the money. MacKinley (Stephen Rea) is the lawman who chased Cassidy to his ‘death’ many years before, but he allows his old foe a chance to save himself out of respect for someone who could play the game so well. This is a magnificent performance from Rea and the speech he delivers when he discovers Blackthron’s identity helps us to remember why this actor is so respected.

As well as all of this, the film toys with the idea of age. Blackthorn was content to hide out in the desert for many years, but he reaches a stage in his life when he feels he needs to return home. As the character says ‘I thought that if I was gonna die of old age, I had better go home to do it’. There is something more to that statement than just seeing the people he loved one more time, there is also the idea that he wanted to return to where his life began, before it ended.

The story of the film is a simple one, and it is in no hurry to wrap up and the landscape underscores the idea of journeying and loneliness. There may be one too many flashbacks throughout the film, and the story takes some curious loops and turns. As well as this, some of the emotional impact of the film is lessened through choices by director Mateo Gil, who takes a light touch to the film and focuses on the redemption that Blackthorn may not even be searching for.

Blackthorn contains an arc that we have seen before on the big screen, but this quiet Western is everything that is right with the genre; great performances, true strength of character, pretty landscapes and a chance for redemption. The story is a little circuitous and the flashbacks unnecessary, but Sam Shepard is enthralling and his performance is more than enough to keep the audience interested.

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