Review: Blackthorn Puts Butch Cassidy Back in the Saddle

Blackthorn doesn’t have its heart set on serving as a sequel, official or otherwise, to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as it supposes that the outlaws survived that shootout and lived on to ride again. Mateo Gil’s sturdy Western does make a nicely melancholy flipside to George Roy Hill’s more rambunctious classic, though, an elegy for rowdier days.

We catch up with Butch, now living as James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard), in 1927. He’s prepared to quit raising and selling horses in Bolivia and finally return to the home to the country he once fled, but his journey is interrupted once he comes across a stranded robber, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), and loses his horse to the fright of gunshots. When Eduardo insists that he has the money to compensate for Blackthorn’s losses and then some, they reluctantly partner up to retrieve it. Interspersed along the way are needless, harmless flashbacks to the days when Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Sundance (Padraic Delaney) shared the love of Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) and drew the attention of Pinkerton agents like MacKinley (Stephen Rea).

It’s to Shepard and Coster-Waldau’s credit that neither leaves us thinking wistfully of Newman in the role; then again, the former actor’s the only one really putting up any competition. It would be easy to call Shepard’s performance “grizzled” and be done with it – he does boast a beard, after all – but his work here avoids the familiar “kindly codger” routine that Eastwood and Bridges have milked of late. Blackthorn isn’t looking for redemption or justice, simply tempted by one last chance to inhabit his own legend. Along with MacKinley, equally stranded in Bolivia after all this time, these two men have unknowingly waited for a renewed sense of purpose, to have the romanticism of the ride returned to their lives, and both of their performances extend beyond surface-level weariness into a deeper yearning for the pursuit to not end just yet.

In the spirit of things, Gil’s direction is appropriately dusty and almost gentle for the genre. The South American scenery often proves to be a lovely surrogate for the American Southwest, with a mid-film showdown on the salt flats being especially striking. Bolivia seems like a haven for some fugitives, a wasteland for others, and its wide-ranging appearance complements the contemplative mood well. Miguel Barros’ screenplay references the previous film sparingly, yet effectively – as he approaches a bank teller, Cassidy pulls out a piece of paper rather than a pistol, and upon his departure, he compliments the management for treating him better than any other such establishment has – while deftly illustrating the man’s motivations to both return home and ride off on one last adventure.

I’m grateful for the latter option. Blackthorn may not be revolutionary or action-packed, but it makes a fine case for seeing an older outlaw, and a talented actor, saddle up once more.

Blackthorn is currently in limited release and also available on demand.

Grade: B