You remember what John Ford taught us about the Old West: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. The legend about Butch Cassidy goes that he died with his partner, The Sundance Kid, in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908. But what if the legend was wrong? The new film “Blackthorn” proposes a counter-legend: Cassidy survived and retired to a life of quiet anonymity as “James Blackthorn,” a rancher in the Bolivian mountains. Twenty years later, Blackthorn decides if he’s getting old enough to die, he might as well die at home, so he sets off for America. But getting back on his horse and picking up his guns seems to bring back all the old ways of the Old West, and before long James Blackthorn is acting like Butch Cassidy again.
The simple but effective “Blackthorn” casts playwright and actor Sam Shepard in the title role, and if ever a man deserved the nickname “Butch,” it’s Sam Shepard. Gruff and silvered but still handsome at age 67, he looks every bit the badass cowboy in the autumn of his years. The film puts most of the dramatic load on Shepard’s grizzled shoulders; his understated line readings carry most of the film while beautiful frontier cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchía does the rest. Shepard’s worldweary performance and Anchía’s stark camerawork elevate the material beyond your standard revisionist Western fare (odd how revisionist Westerns are now the standard; perhaps revisionism is due for its own revision).
Blackthorn’s return to America in 1927 gets sidetracked when a passing stranger knocks him off his horse and separates him from the life savings hidden in his saddlebags. This man, Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), has stolen $50,000 dollars from a corrupt mining baron, and offers to split it with Blackthorn if he’ll help him escape from the armed men who are chasing him. Blackthorn does and the two slowly develop a friendship and partnership not unlike the one he shared decades earlier with the Sundance Kid. Occasional flashbacks to the famous partners’ last days together in Bolivia provide nostalgic counterpoint to the elegiac “modern” sequences. Shepard and Noriega have decent onscreen chemistry together, but Noriega makes a few serious missteps in his final scenes, crying and screaming and cursing in a way that feels wildly out of place in an otherwise quiet and reflective film.
In Blackthorn’s present, the West — or really the South, where Butch and Sundance fled when there was no West left to explore — has turned bleak and cold. I lost track of how many horses died of exhaustion after death marches through the unforgiving deserts of Bolivia but the number’s got to be close to double digits; director Mateo Gil (screenwriter of “Open Your Eyes” and “The Sea Inside”) holds little back in depicting the grim brutality of the frontier. The West of John Ford’s time was the home to many myths about personal freedom and discovery. The revised West of modern cinema is a sadder, darker place. Shepard is fun to watch but life in Bolivia sure looks like no fun at all. There’s no freedom left to discover, just the labored breathing of a simpler time trudging along on its last legs.