Man of Mystery
By Carl Kozlowski
There are certain people whose exploits or accomplishments are so colorful they pass straight from reality into the realm of legend. Often, those legendary figures are outlaws who disappeared before they could be brought to justice. Consider D.B. Cooper, who parachuted out of a plane while carrying a fortune in stolen cash, or the men thought to have survived escape attempts from Alcatraz.
Among these people, Butch Cassidy holds an even greater place in the ranks of great American outlaws whose ultimate fate is uncertain. The story goes that he and his partner in crime, the Sundance Kid, were killed in an ambush by Bolivian soldiers in 1908, but their bodies were never definitively returned to America.
Many have wondered if Butch and Sundance survived that battle, and the new Western film Blackthorn offers a captivating take on what might have happened if Cassidy managed to live into old age. Played by veteran actor/playwright Sam Shepard as an old and bearded hombre hiding out deep in the Bolivian countryside under the alias James Blackthorn, this film’s Cassidy is a man who craves a shot at redemption on a personal level after learning for the first time that he has a now-grown son in San Francisco.
The film is framed by Blackthorn’s letters to his son, which he reads in voiceover as he offers his unique life philosophies to smooth the way for their hoped-for meeting. While there are also a few flashbacks that reveal what happened after Butch and Sundance survived, most of the film takes place in the stark present that Blackthorn faces as he tries to survive coming out of hiding.
As he prepares for his journey back home, Blackthorn encounters Eduardo Apodaca, a younger Latino outlaw who has just robbed a train after studying Cassidy’s famed techniques. The two first meet after Eduardo’s horse is killed in a gun battle he instigated against Blackthorn, forcing the pair to travel together.
But another odd circumstance really bonds the unlikely pair together: Eduardo has stolen $50,000 from what he describes as the rich owners of his company. Blackthorn happily thinks he’s found a new partner in crime but slowly realizes Eduardo’s story doesn’t add up, leading to a stunning series of consequences and betrayals between the men.
Blackthorn works wonders on a limited budget, bringing the West to vibrant life under the crisp direction of Mateo Gil and an elegantly thoughtful yet action-packed script by Miguel Barros.
But aside from Shepard’s award-worthy, career-capping take on Cassidy’s alter ego, the real star of the film is cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, who brings the film’s many Bolivian locations to wondrous life while also helping frame shot after shot with angles that have rarely been seen before.
Offering Western fans a beautifully shot, character-driven take on one of the West’s most mysterious yet charismatic figures, Blackthorn is well worth a viewing for those who miss seeing the overlooked genre on the big screen. Its pleasures, however, are strong enough to be appreciated by fans of intelligent cinema, no matter the genre.