Butch Cassidy as shown in 2011's Blackthorn.
It's 1928 in the Bolivian mountains and famed bank robber Butch Cassidy is living in peace under the name of James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard). Many believed he died in a shootout with the Bolivian army in 1908, but Cassidy survived. Now a much older man, Butch/James is planning to travel back to the United States to meet his nephew who he's never met. But coming home with the money he's earned from selling a string of prize horses, he loses the money thanks to a run-in with a man on the run, a Spaniard named Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), who's robbed a mine of $50,000. With a promise of getting a cut of the money, James more than unwillingly helps Eduardo escape. All he wants is to get home, but James may have stepped into more than he figured.
Westerns are few and far between being released in theaters or even on straight to DVD recently, and this one from director Mateo Gil didn't exactly get a huge release. Check that, there aren't many good westerns released at all. In that familiar sub-genre of the dying and changing times in the western, Gil has made a low-key, underplayed film that has some fun with the "what if?" aspect of history. 'Blackthorn' was filmed in Bolivia, a beautiful country featuring lush, green mountains, harsh, barren deserts and apocalyptic salt flats. Even 100 years since the story actually happened, Bolivia looks like 1908, a time capsule of an era long since past. Tiny, rustic towns carved into hillsides in a brutal land. Some uses of folk songs are a little too much, even obvious and heavy-handed, but it's not a deal-killer. The visual is so gorgeous you'll be able to block out the songs. Okay, I was able to.
Most viewer's familiarity with the real-life person Butch Cassidy is through Paul Newman's performance in the classic 1969 western. It's years later though, and this is not the happy-go-lucky tone of that movie. Who better to play a weathered, world-weary outlaw than weathered, world-weary Sam Shepard? The casting is beyond perfect. Shepard looks and feels like he is right at home in a western...even 1928 Bolivia. His Butch has led a hidden life for 20 years, not quite wasting away in Bolivia but not exactly living a full-life either. The unofficial last of the outlaws, Butch has outlived the time he thrived in, and he feels some guilt over having done so. Inner demons? Not quite, but he's clearly struggling to come to terms with his life hidden away in Bolivia. It is a great performance, one Shepard really brings to life.
Fans of either the real-life exploits of Butch or of the 1969 film -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- will no doubt get a ton of enjoyment from Gil's decision to tell the story with a handful of flashbacks peppered into the movie. With a handful of flashbacks, we see Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney), and Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place (Dominique McElligott), over a 10-year span or so as they decide to leave the American west and head to South America. These scenes are both well-written, well-acted and help flesh out the 1928 version of Butch. The one I looked forward to the most was the depiction of the San Vicente shootout where Butch and Sundance were rumored to have been killed. Shot in the aftermath of the shootout, it is simple and effective. That's all the scenes, to the point and surprisingly emotional, especially Butch's last scene with Sundance in the snow-covered Bolivian mountains.
With Shepard, two roles in the 1928 storyline rise to the occasion, the first coming from Eduardo Noriega as the Spaniard on the run, Eduardo. The character is appropriately mysterious, a good counter to Shepard's Blackthorn who is holding onto some obvious secrets of his own. Noriega isn't great in the part, but next to Shepard he's just got to be good, and he is just that...fine. In another key part, Stephen Rea plays MacKinlay, a former Pinkerton agent who hunted Butch and Sundance who always believed the two outlaws survived their rumored death. Still in Bolivia years later, he believes he's found Butch. Also look for Magaly Solier as Yana, a native Bolivian woman who has a relationship with Blackthorn.
In an odd connection to the 1969 movie, much of the 2011's movie's story has Blackthorn and Eduardo on the run from a Bolivian posse similar to Butch and Sundance running from a Pinkerton posse. The duo on the run is the movie at its best, but some parts of the final act slow down and lose the momentum that had been built up. The twist delivered in the last 30 minutes disappoints in a way, but it does allow Butch to redeem himself in a way, leading up to an ending that allows viewers to come to their own conclusions. All told, it's an above average western with gorgeous photography and a great lead performance from Sam Shepard.
Blackthorn <---trailer (2011): ***/****