Blackthorn paints a stunning landscape, but falters with characters

by Sofya Levina / Beacon Staff • October 19, 2011

Forty-two years ago, Robert Redford and Paul Newman rode side by side as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They robbed trains, jumped off of cliffs, and still found time to look handsome in every shot. In the latest development of the famous Western, the Sundance Kid is dead, while Butch Cassidy, played by Pulitzer-winning playwright and Academy Award-nominated actor Sam Shepard, survives under the name James Blackthorn.

emBlackthorn/em, directed by Spain’s Gil Mateo from a screenplay by Miguel Barrostoys (also from Spain), toys with the theory that Butch Cassidy did not die in the 1908 shootout, and went on to create a new identity for himself as a humble horse-breeder, living alone in the Bolivian Mountains. Although fans of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may have wanted to see Butch back on his horse, perhaps some legends are better left alone.

Cassidy, yearning to return to America, gathers his life savings and begins to make his way home. Just as he begins his journey, though, he crosses paths with a young, handsome Spaniard, Eduardo Apocada (Eduardo Noriega) and the two begin to shoot at each other. During this introduction, Cassidy’s horse runs away — along with the money he had been saving for twenty years. Afraid for his life, Apocada frantically promises to repay Cassidy with the money he said he stole from a wealthy mine owner. The two just have to retrieve it first.

The two ride through the hilly and empty Bolivian countryside. The breathtaking mountain sides, indigenous villages, and silent, uninhabited plateaus steal the spotlight. In the foreground, gunfire and anarchy take center stage, covering the otherwise peaceful land with blood.

However, not even the raw splendor of Bolivia can distract from the overwrought lines and unnatural character development. Shepard’s Cassidy makes painstaking efforts to seem macho and nonchalant, attempting to command respect through virile one liners that could have only worked on an audience from the 30s.

Unlike the chemistry between Redford and Newman, the relationship between Cassidy and Apocada seems forced and disingenuous. The unnatural relationship culminates in one of the final scenes, when Apocada, betrayed by Cassidy, screams, “Damn you Butch Cassidy, damn you!” with laugh-inducing over-dramatization. The phoniness of Noriega’s performance in that moment is only be matched by Cassidy’s unrealistic ability to recover instantly after being shot in the heart.

The screenplay is stimulating enough to keep the viewer interested through several plot twists, including the introduction of a minor character, McKinley (Stephen Rea), who 20 years ago chased Cassidy to Bolivia. But the potential of this turn also falls victim to Cassidy’s contrived machismo: After the two recognize each other and share a long silence, Cassidy simply lies back down, already bored with the encounter. The constant push to make Cassidy impossibly masculine and careless removes any trace of a relatable character.

With its visually striking imagery,em Blackthorn/em will perhaps inspire some to go to Bolivia for a honeymoon, but, unlike emButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/em, it will not leave you running to buy a rifle and a stallion.

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