Friday, January 20, 2012

Unseen Cinema: BLACKTHORN (2011)

(Spain/France/Bolivia - 2011)

Directed by Mateo Gil.  Written by Miguel Barros.  Cast: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Magaly Solier, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott.  (R, 102 mins)

It seems more films than ever--even big-budget films with big name stars--are falling through the cracks and not being seen until they get dumped on DVD/Blu-ray or VOD.  Or, in the case of many Magnolia releases, they follow an unconventional release pattern that sees them premiering on VOD or online, and then, maybe going to theaters before arriving on DVD or streaming on Netflix.  BLACKTHORN debuted on iTunes and VOD a month before an October 2011 theatrical release that saw it hit 21 US screens at its widest.  I'm almost certain more people saw it on VOD than in a theater (its total gross was less than $200,000), and while that may represent changing distribution methods, it's really unfortunate because this is a beautifully-made film that would've looked absolutely stunning on a big screen.

And it's a hell of a film, and not just visually.  Set in 1927 Bolivia, the film has an aging Butch Cassidy, played to grizzled perfection by Sam Shepard, living a low-profile existance nearly 20 years after he was thought to be killed with the Sundance Kid.  Calling himself James Blackthorn, Cassidy is set to leave Bolivia to return to the US upon hearing of the death of former cohort and lover Etta Place.  His plans take a detour when he's shot at by bandit Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), which causes his horse--and saddlebags filled with $6000--to run off.  Apodaca is being pursued by a posse after stealing $50,000 from an unscrupulous mine owner.  Cassidy, keeping his true identity a secret, goes along with Apodaca, intending to keep $25,000 for himself for all the trouble Apodaca has caused him.  An unlikely friendship forms between the men, and after a surprise encounter with two female members of the posse, Cassidy decides to make a run for it with Apodaca, but there's surprises in store for both men.

BLACKTHORN isn't really a big western shoot 'em up.  It falls more in line with the somber, elegiac tone of, say, Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.  "James Blackthorn" gets by, but is forever haunted by his past, his dead friends, his lost loves ("Uncle Butch" is going to the US to meet Etta's son Ryan, who's really his son), and is coming to terms with the fact that he's an old man and he wants to set things right (his reflections are in the form of flashbacks, where young Cassidy is played by GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).   It's not all somber and remorseful, and there's still plenty of humor in the film (Cassidy, rubbing salve on Apodaca's bare, saddle-chafed ass: "Yer ass is softer'n a bookkeeper's!").  

Shepard has never been better than he is here, and this film's extremely limited release not only deprived moviegoers of a beautiful-looking film, but a beautifully-acted one as well, and in a perfect world, there'd be Oscar buzz for Shepard's performance.  It's the kind of performance that an often-overlooked actor delivers in the latter part of their career that cements their reputations and provokes a re-evaluation of their past work.  There's no shortage of great work in Shepard's past: DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978),  FRANCES (1982), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), FOOL FOR LOVE (1985), DON'T COME KNOCKING (2005), and he even brought depth and heart to a small supporting role as a retired prison guard in the otherwise forgettable FELON (2008), working a hell of a lot harder than he had to for a film headlined by Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer.  And, like any character actor, there's a lot of quick paycheck junk on Shepard's IMDb page (DEFENSELESS, SWORDFISH, STEALTH), but he's rarely lauded for the often subtly solid work he's done for most of the last 30-plus years.  You could argue that BLACKTHORN is a career performance for him.  It's certainly the best role he's had in years. 

He's given strong support by Noriega and, later in the film, a marvelous Stephen Rea as Mackinley, a former Pinkerton agent who's now a drunken wreck in Bolivia. Mackinley's pursuit of Butch and Sundance was an obsession, and his claims that Cassidy wasn't killed in 1908 only got him laughed out of a job.  Rea's another terrific character actor who too often gets saddled with journeyman paycheck gigs and doesn't do a good job of hiding his disinterest, but proves here that he still has an A-game and can bring it when the situation calls.

Written by Miguel Barros and directed by longtime Alejandro Amenabar collaborator Mateo Gil, who wrote Amenabar's films TESIS (1996), OPEN YOUR EYES (1999), THE SEA INSIDE (2004), and the underseen AGORA (2010), BLACKTHORN's other major weapon is the breathtaking cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia that makes use of every bit of the 2.35 aspect ratio.  BLACKTHORN is one of those unheralded gems that just get missed.  It's been on DVD/Blu-ray for a few weeks and it started streaming on Netflix today.  It's worth your time.  One of the best-kept secrets of 2011 cinema.

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