Suppose legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy didn't die in a hail of gunfire in Bolivia, but lived on in retirement for years, until circumstances drew him out for one last reckoning. That's the premise of Blackthorn, Spanish director Mateo Gil's spare, soulful tone poem on the iconography of the West, honor among thieves, and redemption.
The fiercely iconic Sam Shepard is perfectly cast as the outlaw formerly known as Cassidy, now calling himself James Blackthorn. It's decades since Etta Place (Dominique McElligott, in flashback) took the train back to the states (carrying the child Blackthorn still occasionally writes to, signing himself "Uncle Butch"), and the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) died in his arms. (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also excellent as the younger Butch in these flashbacks.) Now he lives peacefully in a tiny, mud-brick ranch house in the Bolivian countryside, enjoying a loving relationship with Indian woman, Yana (Magaly Solier).
But crusty, grizzled Blackthorn is ready to go back to the states. "If I was gonna die of old age," he says, "I might as well do it at home." A chance encounter with Spanish bandito, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), however, costs him his life savings. Eduardo promises to split the loot if Blackthorn will help him recover a hidden bag of money he robbed from a mining company. On the way, Blackthorn takes the younger outlaw under his wing and shares his views on honor, friendship, and life. (Asked why he gave up robbing trains before he got rich, Blackthorn replies, "I've been my own man. Nothing richer than that.") But trust me: there's nothing warm and fuzzy about where this movie is going.
In a nod to the classic George Roy Hill movie, the two men are pursued by a relentless posse, forever kicking up dust just over the horizon, although the character of this posse is very different (a showdown between three women is particularly hair-raising). Meanwhile, ex-Pinkerton detective Mackinley (a terrific Stephen Rea), turns up as a drunken old gringo who's wasted his life in fruitless pursuit of Butch and Sundance, but now embraces the quiet life away from the "war" the corporate railroads waged against the outlaws. Director Gil has previously been known as a screenwriter (Open Your Eyes; The Sea Inside), although here he works from a script by Miguel Barros. He moves the action smoothly along through some luscious Bolivian landscapes to the stark, yet righteous conclusion of this moody, elegiac film.