Sam Shepard himself takes a rare lead in Blackthorn, which expands on the theories that Butch Cassidy somehow survived the shoot out at San Vicente, Bolivia in 1908. “I woke up and found myself alone,” he explains. “Seemed like everybody I knew was either dead or in jail. And they thought I was dead, too. So I did what any good dead person would do. I went off and raised me some horses. 20 years. That’s a big change. Quiet times.” Cassidy, in his twilight years, decides to return to America, to be reunited with family. Falling in with Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), a young Spanish mining engineer on the run from a posse, he catches the scent of his old desperado ways.
The directorial debut of Mateo Gil, a scriptwriter perhaps best known for Abre Les Ojos, the film Cameron Crowe remade as Vanilla Sky, Blackthorn exhibits a number of elegiac qualities befitting a Western about a man reaching a certain age in his life. Shepard summons up a mythic image of one of America’s great outlaws – dusty and craggy, with a splendid Kristofferson-style beard (he had a great cameo as another famous robber, Frank James, in 2007’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford). In one scene where Butch and Eduardo billet overnight in an abandoned building in the Bolivian salt flats, Shepard delivers several reveries on the heyday of his gang, the Wild Bunch – “we covered more than six states, some of them bigger than this whole country.” The writing here is of a high standard and – as you’d expect – impeccably delivered. Frankly, you wish there’d be more scenes like this.
Flashbacks to an imagined history with Game Of Thrones’ Nicolaj Coster-Waldau as a younger Cassidy, Padraic Delaney as Sundance and Dominique McElligott as Etta Place, feel a little like distractions from the main event of watching Shepard squint ruminatively into the far distance. I wish more had been made of Stephen Rea’s former Pinkerton agent, a drunk and dissipated figure living in sorrowful retirement in the Bolivian boondocks. His scenes with Shepard capture exactly the right tone of regret, betrayal and broken honour the film strives for but often fails to catch.