Tag Archives: Sam Shepard

Blackthorn

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 10, 2014

Blackthorn—Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Magaly Solier (2011; Dir:  Mateo Gil)

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This is a wintry Euro-western, with a Spanish director and mostly Spanish-speaking cast, shot in Bolivia.  It’s a “what if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in San Vicente in 1908?” story, starring Sam Shepard as the aging Butch.  It takes place mostly twenty years after Butch’s supposed death in Bolivia, as Butch, now calling himself James Blackthorn, considers a return to the U.S.  Etta Place has died of tuberculosis in San Francisco, leaving a young adult son with whom Butch has corresponded.  “I been my own man,” Blackthorn comments. “Nothing’s richer than that.”

Butch sells his horses and has a nest egg of $6000, sufficient to return to America.  While returning with the money to say goodbye to friends (particularly a young Indian woman named Yana [Megaly Solier]) before leaving the country, he finds a dead horse and rides on.  He is ambushed by the horse’s former rider, a young Spaniard named Eduardo Apodaca who had worked for a mining titan and robbed him of $50,000.  He was on his way to retrieve the money when he was shot at and lost his horse.  Now Butch’s horse, with his money, is scared off.  In return for reluctantly helping Apodaca out of the desolate, remote area to the mine, Apodaca promises Butch half his loot.

BlackthornCassidyApo Blackthorn and Apodaca.

There are flashbacks showing the young Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) being captured at one time by Pinkerton agent McKinley (Stephen Rea) and escaping.  As in the story we remember, Etta left Butch and Sundance in South America, returning to the U.S. alone—and pregnant in this version.  In San Vicente, Butch and Sundance are thought to be killed, but they get away, although Sundance is mortally wounded.  Butch helps him die in as humane a fashion as possible, and goes off to his life as a solitary rancher for the next twenty years.

While retrieving Apodaca’s ill-gotten gains, they are trapped in the mine by a posse of native trackers and frontiersmen.  Apodaca knows of a secret exit, and they make it away to Butch’s ranch, where Apodaca recovers from a wound.  One morning a couple of women show up, saying they have recovered Butch’s horse with the money.  They pull out guns, shoot Butch, kill Yana and Apodaca finally gets them.  But Butch and Apodaca are on the run again, this time with Butch badly wounded.

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They are followed by the relentless posse into the desert, where Butch, Apodaca and attrition wear the posse down.  Finally, Butch gives Apodaca the good horse that should get him out of the desert and instructs him to meet him in a town on the other side.  It seems unlikely Butch will make it.

But somehow he does.  We next see him in a near-coma on a doctor’s table.  The doctor seems to know who he is, and sends for the alcoholic McKinley, now an honorary consul in that town, to ask him.  McKinley says it is Butch, and sits with Butch until he awakens.  By that time he has thought better of giving Butch over to the authorities.  But he informs Butch that, instead of robbing a mining baron, Apodaca has stolen the money from poor mining familiies who had been awarded the played-out mine by a Bolivian court.  Butch sees this as an affront to his Robin-Hood-style ethics and similarly to his views on the sacredness of friendship.

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Young Sundance, Etta and Butch, in their carefree days.

[Spoilers follow.]  With McKinley’s help Butch escapes the town, once more into a desolate high desert, heading for the Andes to cross into Chile.  Apodaca, it turns out, was also in town, and barely escapes with his loot.  The two of them make their separate ways across the desert to the Andes foothills.   As Apodaca wakes up one morning he finds Butch watching him and hopes that they can continue their escape together.  Instead, Butch shoots him in the leg, runs off his horse and leaves Apodaca and his money to the pursuing posse, which now includes soldiers.  As he climbs the mountains on his horse he hears shots as they find Apodaca.  The soldiers have forced McKinley to accompany them, and as they crest the mountains on the Chilean border they are frustrated at having seen Butch’s track but not being able to find him.  So they strand McKinley there without his horse.  Not knowing anything of this, Butch moves on, presumably to make it back to the U.S., although that’s not shown.

There are a lot of positives about this bleak film.  Sam Shepard is convincing as the aging Butch, and the younger actors in the flashbacks are enormously attractive, especially Coster-Waldau (now known from his appearance in HBO’s Game of Thrones) and McElligott (later seen in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, a western series).  Coster-Waldau and Shepard do seem believably to resemble each other.  In a way, this attractiveness is a problem:  we’d like to see more of the younger Butch, Sundance and Ella than of the supposed main story, which takes its time developing.  Noriega is also very good as the amoral Spanish robber Apodaca.

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The use of the vast Bolivian landscapes is very good, with superb cinematography by Jose Ruiz Anchia.  It captures some of the wide-open feel of many good westerns, but it doesn’t look at all like the North American west.  It’s fascinating in its own way.  The music by Lucio Godoy is excellent, with wonderful use of U.S. folk music in songs like “Sam Hall.”  It’s not a long movie at an hour and forty-five minutes, but it’s not tightly put together, either.  Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be quite enough story here.  Watching this, one is reminded that a European sensibility has some differences from the American approach to westerns.  Not one of the greats, but one would like to see this sort of thing tried more often.

Shepard’s natural wintry reserve plays well in westerns, and it’s the heart of this movie.  He’s a living example of how a certain kind of what initially seems to be inexpressiveness actually translates well to a style of acting that works and seems quite natural in westerns.  That’s not to say that all inexpressiveness works in westerns; the argument is that for some actors it’s not as inexpressive as some may take it to be.  For more Shepard in a western context, see him in Purgatory and the miniseries Klondike and Streets of Laredo.  He also has a small role as an aging Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and appears in All the Pretty Horses (2000).  One could wish that more westerns were being made so Shepard could be in them, even at his age (in his seventies).

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Another quibble:  Granted, Butch spent his adult years in wild places with rough companions on the wrong side of the law, but this Butch seems to drink heavily and swear a lot for a Robin Hood with a Mormon upbringing who maintained some connections with it.  One can see him drinking and using occasional bad language, but probably not to this extent.  This is rated R for profanity and violence.

For another story of Butch not dying in San Vicente, if you can find it try John Byrne Cooke’s novel South of the Border, with Butch in Mexico during the revolution.

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Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  Uli Edel)

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Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest.  Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process.  Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town.  They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse.  Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.

The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels.  Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters.  The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid.  And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town.  They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church. 

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Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.

[Spoilers follow.]  Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up.  Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose.  Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with.  He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years.  [Note:  Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.]  She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge:  they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives.  If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course.  In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge.  But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned.  And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.

Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like.  Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation.  Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can.  There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.  

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The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).

This is about choices, and not easy ones.  Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie.  He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had:  somebody to stick up for her.  For the four, it’s different.  They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term.  Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.

Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward.  Even Blackjack recognizes that.  Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand.  Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption.  In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well). 

Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends.  Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer.  It isn’t even close.  Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.

The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell.  As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up.  It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in.  Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay.  Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.

purgatory4 Taking on the bad guys.

This is better done than we have any right to expect.  The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things.  The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran.  The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic.  We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999. 

The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok.  Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch.  Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him.  Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works.  Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly.  Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James.  Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well.  It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind.  Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving.  One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck.  This deserves to be better known.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country.  There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.”  And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religous figure in his last western.

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