There are no chipper raindrops falling on the head of Sam Shepard’s rueful, graying outlaw Butch Cassidy in “Blackthorn,” a lovely, melancholy speculation on the aftermath of director George Roy Hill’s Oscar-adorned 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Unlike the twinkly-eyed, bicycle-riding rascal played by Paul Newman, Shepard’s aging, laconic Butch – having amazingly survived the earlier film’s famed freeze-frame shootout finale and now living peacefully under the alias James Blackthorn in Bolivia – is a grizzled old cowboy saddled with a lifetime of regret.
“Blackthorn” is set in 1927, nearly two decades after the infamous outlaw’s supposed death, and finds Butch-alias-Blackthorn a prosperous rancher enjoying anonymity in Bolivia’s rugged outback and the occasional toss in the hay with an exotic local beauty (Magaly Solier).
But when word reaches Butch that his former flame Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) has died in San Francisco, he decides it’s time to come out of hiding, sell his stock, clean out his bank account and head north to reunite with his long-lost son.
From there, first-time director and celebrated Spanish screenwriter Mateo Gil (“Open Your Eyes,” “The Sea Inside”) and writer Miguel Barros dream up a lavish, picturesque misadventure in which Butch loses his grubstake and is thrown together with a shiftless Spanish thief (Eduardo Noriega) in an ill-conceived scheme to rob a local mine.
So, once again, Butch finds himself in the familiar predicament of being hotly pursued by a relentless posse – a situation that sets up an ironic reunion with the dogged Pinkerton man McKinley (Stephen Rea in a gaunt, ghostly performance), who has been on the outlaw’s trail for years. As Butch briskly works his pony through Bolivia’s snaking mountain passes and across its vast deserts, we see rousing flashes of his old outlaw grit and swagger spring back to life in Shepard’s lean, nuanced performance.
Gil fills out the narrative with sharp flashbacks to Butch’s earlier escapades – looping in the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney), Etta Place and Butch’s younger self (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and angling toward that final, fateful shootout and the secret to Butch and Sundance’s cunning escape.
It’s all set against a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop of the lush Bolivian high country – with its craggy mountains, dense jungles and lunar salt flats – and photographed with a painterly eye by cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia (“Glengarry Glen Ross”).
While at some points the scenery seems almost too lavish for the story’s sinewy emotional confines, the muscular and unfussy performance of Shepard keeps things nicely grounded.
A renowned playwright whose acting career has mostly been a solid asterisk of strong supporting turns, Shepard steps up here with a gritty, world-weary bit of star power that even that old rawhide Clint Eastwood would be proud to call his own. It’s that singular, still and knowing performance that makes the elegiac “Blackthorn” a fitting, understated grace note to the more rambunctious “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
- Dennis King
Starring: Sam Shepard, Stephen Rea, Padriac Delaney, Dominique McElligott
(Violence and language)