In the distance, two lone figures on horseback ride across a vast expanse of land and sky. The two men are the legendary Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard), now an old man, and Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), a younger Spanish engineer turned bandit, and the context is “Blackthorn,” the new movie from Spanish director Mateo Gil. The film begins with the premise that Butch Cassidy did not die at the hands of the Bolivian army, but instead lived on under an alias until circumstances provoked his reemergence. It’s an intriguing concept, and “Blackthorn” is a strikingly beautiful execution of it, with pleasant if sometimes terse dialogue and superb acting. Ultimately, though, the film’s moral equivocations betray its own characters, and undermine its otherwise considerable artistic achievement.
“Blackthorn” is not a sequel to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the 1969 George Roy Hill film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Rather, the movie offers a complete retelling of the story of Butch Cassidy, while focusing on the hitherto untold tale of his later life. The story of Cassidy’s journey to Bolivia as a younger man with the Sundance Kid and Etta Place is told throughout the movie via flashbacks. As writer Miguel Barros imagines it, the fabled trio, feeling it was time to depart the U.S., decided to travel to South America. Etta then left the two men—both previous romantic flames—to return home and give birth to a child. Butch survives the shootout with the Bolivian army and after years of quietly breeding horses and messing around with a younger Bolivian woman, decides to go home and see this child, whom he believes is his.
This homecoming serves as a MacGuffin of sorts. The majority of the movie centers upon Butch and his companion Eduardo Apodaca and how their journey impacts their relationship. The two begin as stock characters. Butch, whose alias is James Blackthorn, is the gruff old man who is too old for all this. Eduardo is the young, inexperienced criminal badly in need of guidance. Both Shepard and Noriega are honest and believable in their roles—which grow and complicate as the film progresses—perhaps aided by their respective real-life youthful experiences of riding in rodeos and working on ranches. The two actors complement each other nicely; Blackthorn overflows with sagacious truisms that delightfully toe the line between crusty wisdom and cliché, while Apodaca’s naïve enthusiasm rejuvenates his older companion.
Though not set in the American west, like many classic Westerns “Blackthorn” takes advantage of its natural scenery to great effect. The South American salt flats are perhaps the most unusual location featured in the movie, but only one of its many gorgeous backdrops. The film’s action spans across thickly forested mountains, vast sparsely foliaged deserts, huge dramatic rock formations, and small idyllic Bolivian villages. The wholly foreign nature of these settings adds to the sense of Cassidy’s isolation and increases the audience’s investment in his personal struggles.
Less compelling are the recurring moral motifs throughout the movie. Early on, Shepard’s character clashes with Noriega’s over whether the latter is right to steal purely for personal monetary gain. But this conflict feels forced and untrue to the characters themselves. After all, Cassidy was himself a bank robber, and even with the wisdom of old age, it seems strange for him to have become as stubbornly upright as he ultimately is in “Blackthorn.” Generally, the movie’s moral interplay, which seems oddly ignorant of Cassidy’s past life, comes off as a somewhat dishonest distraction from the film’s storyline and scenery.
Nonetheless, “Blackthorn” is undeniably a good old-fashioned adventure story, one that honors its predecessor, even if it fails to exceed it. And with strong performances, a deft screenplay and engrossing cinematography, the movie stands as a solid work of filmmaking, regardless of whether or not it faithfully adheres to its source material.