Monday, November 28, 2011

It’s Got Vision: Blackthorn

Among the many hilarious moments in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, one of my favorites comes just after the infamous outlaws have fled the United States. Arriving in a train station that is nothing more than a gutted building with pigs hanging around out back, the duo has successfully landed in Bolivia, a mysterious country to the south that Butch has romanticized as some exotic retirement paradise for on-the-lam stick-up artists without ever seeing it. Needless to say, the first impression leaves something to be desired, but Butch remains optimistic. “All of Bolivia can’t look like this,” he reasons. Yet Sundance isn’t so sure: “How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country.” Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn clarifies that it isn’t. Set in 1927, almost 20 years after Butch and Sundance were reported dead in the kind of massive shootout that was so memorably depicted in George Roy Hill’s Western bromance, Blackthorn finds Butch very much alive, comfortably holed up in a small cabin tucked into the fold of a verdant mountain range – still in Bolivia but far from view. Indeed, this must be the garden spot, but it isn’t the limit of the country’s rugged beauty. Not even close.

Blackthorn has some of the most vivid natural imagery I’ve ever seen at the movies, in the company of Tarsem’s The Fall, and the Bolivian landscape is cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia’s most alluring subject. The movie takes us from Butch’s lush hideaway in the mountains, where he lives under the alias James Blackthorn, raising horses and romancing one of the locals, to a valley of snow-white salt flats that seem to stretch into infinity, spelling doom for anyone who dares to cross them, and to several places in between. Each location is as stunning as the last, and the cinematography – by which I mean the visual storytelling, if that word needs more definition – is just as strong. Some shots are Western staples enhanced to their fullest, like the tracking shot trailing Butch and his horses through the dust kicked up by galloping hooves, the ground a golden brown, the sky a pristine blue. Some shots perfectly articulate the spirit of the traditional Western loner, like the image of Butch walking up a set of train tracks in the middle of nowhere, heading toward a water tower under which he can take relief from the blistering sun. Some shots mimic the sweaty, grungy close-ups of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Some shots remind of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, in particular a twilit image of two men on horseback far in the distance trying to survive the salt flats, much like Lawrence trying to survive Nefud on camelback. And, yes, some shots allude to Hill’s Butch and Sundance movie, like the multiple shots of a threatening posse in the distance, constantly advancing, never seeming to tire.

Gil’s film, from a screenplay by Miguel Barros, is well aware of the strong impression left by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it embraces its spot in that classic’s shadow. Sam Shepard’s Butch isn’t a strict extension of Paul Newman’s portrayal, but it isn’t a complete reimagining either. When Butch spots a wealthy man’s pocket watch and can’t resist luring him into a card game to win it, it plays like a meta reference to The Sting. Shepard makes Butch his own – he doesn’t walk around with the cocky swagger of Newman’s portrayal – but it’s the kind of performance you could easily imagine Newman stepping into in his later years. The strongest references to Hill’s film come in flashbacks to a younger Butch and Sundance, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Padraic Delaney, respectively, in which the outlaws repeatedly trade verbal jabs while treating their life on the run with familiar irreverence, as if these men could be no other way. These flashbacks aren’t particularly necessary to Blackthorn, but they’re welcome just the same because they’re so wonderfully shot, particularly a lighthearted scene in which Butch is hung up in a wire fence near a wheat field and a sweet farewell between Butch and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) at a Bolivian train station far more attractive than the one where the gang arrives in Hill’s film.

Even with all its allusions (intentional or not), Blackthorn becomes its own in the sequence on the salt flats, in which the editing is as crisp as the images and the pacing is quick yet assured. I’ve made it this far without explaining the plot because it’s incidental to the film’s pleasures, and Gil errs only when he fails to remember that. The final act is especially plot heavy, with Stephen Rea, as a former Pinkerton bounty hunter, providing all the background and forecasting the future like the villain in a bad comic book movie. Underneath its unnecessarily intricate plot, Blackthorn is your typical Western about a man who can’t outrun his past, and that’s plenty. Bolivia, as it turns out, is as wonderful as Butch dreamed, but retirement becomes lonely when you outlive all of your friends, and while Gil and Anchia are depicting Bolivia’s natural beauty they’re underlining Butch’s isolation. Whereas Hill’s film, written by William Goldman, is an assault of witty banter and cutting remarks (“Morons! I’ve got morons on my team!”), Blackthorn lacks a single noteworthy line. But its images linger in the mind like a catchphrase.

1 comment:

Richard Bellamy said...

Well done! This movie is a bounteous feast of outdoor cinematography, and some of it distinctively alien, and it's also a satisfying Western for those of us starved for action-oaters. Yes, an older Newman could have done this part, but Shepard fits it well. I really enjoyed this movie.