Many of the best films in the western genre bear an elegiac quality


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The Western has been dying for more than 40 years, and maybe as a result, many of the best films in the genre during that time bear an elegiac quality (The Long Riders, Unforgiven, Dead Man, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brokeback Mountain, the Coen brothers’ two recent Westerns, the list goes on). Spanish director Mateo Gil extends the long swan song with 2011’s Blackthorn by picking up at one of the spots where the Western began its decline: the freeze-frame shot of Paul Newman and Robert Redford facing a Bolivian Army fusillade at the end of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In Gil’s version of Miguel Barros’ screenplay, Butch didn’t go out in a blaze of glory but escaped and lived a quiet life in the Bolivian hinterlands under an alias. And as Gil’s film begins, grizzled “James Blackthorn” (Sam Shepard) is preparing to cash in his horse-breeding stock and return at long last to the United States. Saying goodbye to his sweet little ranch and his Indian bunkmate (Magaly Solier) and setting out across the stunning, sere Bolivian countryside, Blackthorn has a run-in with fleeing thief Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega) who, after costing Blackthorn his grubstake, offers to cut him in on loot stolen from a wealthy mine owner. A posse of men wants that loot too, and Blackthorn and Eduardo find themselves in a few good old-fashioned chases and gunfights. But Blackthorn soon finds that the money wasn’t what he thought it was, and neither is Eduardo.

A big part of the appeal of Newman’s Butch Cassidy, and of Shepard’s, is that he is an outlaw, not a villain. But as the locals and a dogged Pinkerton detective (Stephen Rea) learn his true identity, the upright Blackthorn’s saddled once again with the legacy of his carefree youth (revisited in somewhat feckless flashbacks that fumble the carefree spirit of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy) and his misdeeds, both in the past and in the here and now. Barros’ script has its slightly mushy-headed bits (those flashbacks, the device of Blackthorn writing to a “nephew” he’s never met), but on the whole this is a flinty Western of the neo-old-school. Shepard’s never been a particularly expressive performer, but that works to his and the movie’s advantage here. Just enough hurt and sly glee and regret slip out from the crevasses of his weather-beaten face to create an indelible performance as a man paying an unexpected price for not dying young.

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