Thursday, 2 February 2012

Blackthorn (Mateo Gil, 2011)

Director: Mateo Gil.
Screenwriter: Miguel Barros.
Cast: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott.

Blackthorn was among the first films I mentioned on this blog, so it seems appropriate that as Nobody Knows Anybody approaches its first birthday (next week) that I should finally get to see the film.
   The starting point for Blackthorn (full title Blackthorn, sin destino / Blackthorn, without destiny -a reference to the Spanish title for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -Dos hombres y un destino / Two Men and One Destiny) is the 'what if?' scenario of 'what if Butch and Sundance did not die in the shootout with the Bolivian army?' (there is evidence to suggest that that was the case). So we revisit Butch Cassidy, now with the alias James Blackthorn, after he has spent the best part of two decades breeding horses in the Bolivian mountains. I think that the location is a central part of the success of the film as it allows them to use the well-worn and cosily-familiar tropes of the Western but rework them in an unfamiliar setting; the lush green vegetation of the mountains and dazzling white of the salt flats (and the colours that come with them) are a world away from the usual dust-strewn landscapes of the traditional Western. The film is also beautifully shot: this is a film that deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible to fully appreciate the way in which the characters are dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape. Gil has managed to make a film that feels intimate but plays out on a stage of awe-inspiring proportions.
   James Blackthorn has decided that it is time for him to return to the US; he sells his horses and empties his life savings from his bank account. But not long into his journey he is attacked by a man, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), who believes Blackthorn to be one of a group of men who has been pursuing him; in the ensuing scuffle Blackthorn's horse flees, taking 'my whole life' with him. When Eduardo explains that the men are pursuing him because he has robbed a local mine (he worked there as an engineer), and that he will replace Blackthorn's money if he helps him get to where he has hidden the money, Blackthorn seemingly has no option. The problem is that in the intervening years, while Blackthorn has been quietly living in isolation, the world has moved on in ways that he does not fully comprehend until it is too late; he misreads situations and people because he is still living in the past and the 'old' way of doing things. 
   Shepard makes the character his own (it probably helps that so much time is meant to have passed) and carries the film with ease. He is the only American in the cast -for financial reasons the majority of the cast had to be European. In the 'making of', Gil says that he wanted Eduardo Noriega for the role of the Spanish engineer because of the contrasting qualities of innocence and darkness that he brings, which lend the character ambiguity and put a question-mark over his trustworthiness (this is a key aspect of Noriega's star persona but it is also difficult to imagine Gil casting anyone else in the role given their history together). Stephen Rea wanders through the film almost like an escapee from a Graham Greene novel, first as a Pinkerton detective in pursuit of Butch and Sundance (there are flashbacks with different actors playing the younger Butch when he was still with Sundance) and then in the present in a kind of retirement as an Honorary Consul in a godforsaken town in the middle of nowhere. The film uses a mixture of English and Spanish in a naturalistic (and logical -the only conversations entirely in English are between Blackthorn and MacKinley (Rea), and those between Blackthorn and Eduardo switch back and forth between English and Spanish) fashion. The use of language is one of a series of contrasts that the film sets up along different themes (Bolivia / The US, the Indians / Gringos, 19th century / 20th century, and so on) and that I may revisit at some point in the future.
   Overall, this is a handsome production and a nostalgic elegy to the romantic ideals of the Old West. It was released on DVD in Spain at the start of January (and is also available in Region 1).  

Man made small by the vastness of nature (Blackthorn and Eduardo on horseback on the right of frame)