The Western has been dying for more than 40 years, and maybe as a result, many of the best films in the genre in that time have an elegiac quality (The Long Riders, Unforgiven, Dead Man, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brokeback Mountain, True Grit, the list goes on). Spanish writer/director Mateo Gil extends the long swan song with 2011’s Blackthorn (Magnolia DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) by picking up at one of the spots where the Western began its decline: the freeze-frame shot of Paul Newman and Robert Redford facing a Bolivian Army fusillade at the end of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In Gil’s version, Butch didn’t go out in a blaze of glory but escaped and lived a quiet life in the Bolivian hinterlands under an alias. And as Gil’s film begins, “James Blackthorn” (Sam Shepard) is preparing to cash in his horse-breeding stock and return at long last to the United States.
Setting out across the stunning Bolivian countryside, Blackthorn has a run-in with fleeing thief Eduardo Apodoca (Eduardo Noriega) who, after costing Blackthorn his grubstake, offers to cut him in on loot stolen from a wealthy mine owner. A posse of men wants that loot too, and Blackthorn and Eduardo find themselves in some good old-fashioned chases and gunfights. But Blackthorn soon finds that the money wasn’t what he thought it was, and neither is Eduardo.
A big part of the appeal of Newman’s Butch Cassidy, and of Shepard’s, is that he was an outlaw, not a villain. But as the locals, and a dogged Pinkerton detective (Stephen Rea) learn his true identity, Blackthorn’s saddled once again with the legacy of his carefree youth (revisited in somewhat feckless flashbacks) and his misdeeds, both in the past and in the here and now. Gil’s script has its slightly mush-headed bits (those flashbacks, the device of Blackthorn writing to a “nephew” he’s never met), but on the whole this is a flinty Western of the neo-old school. Shepard’s never been a particularly expressive performer, but that works to his and the movie’s advantage here. Just enough hurt and sly glee and regret slips out between the crags of his weatherbeaten face to create an indelible performance.
The “boxing picture” is almost as old as the Western, and even more prone to cliché and formula. Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (Lionsgate DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) updates the traditional sweet science to today’s brutal mixed-martial arts tourneys, but otherwise he touches nothing. There are two feuding brothers with tons of issues and nothing to lose (Animal Kingdom’s Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy from Bronson, Inception, et al.), a broken-down rummy trainer/father figure (in this case, the brothers’ actual father, played by Nick Nolte), a high-school sweetheart alternately wincing and cheering from ringside (Jennifer Morrison), and a big brawl for it all. You’re surprised that there’s so little onscreen milking of little kids for well-up moments (though one daughter does have an often-mentioned heart problem). That’s really the only thing surprising about Warrior—everything else happens exactly like it always happens in one of these up-from-under sports flicks. And yet, thanks to O’Connor’s deft direction, alternately gritty and sun-kissed cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi, and fabulous performances from the frontline cast, you’re there every step of the way, every punch and kick and hold of every bout, even as the coincidences and melodramatic moments mount. And the winner and new champeen of the male weepie is....
It might seem a bit perverse to throw the latest film from Jean-Luc Godard in alongside such cornfed Hollywood genre fare, but even as he rounds age 80, the French New Wave titan proves himself still capable of new tricks. Film Socialisme (Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray) is, in many ways, typical late-period Godard, fractured and elliptical to the point of opacity, as he shoots the passengers of a gaudy cruise ship traveling the Mediterranean (including Patti Smith—yes, that Patti Smith) and then spends time with a nuclear family running a small gas station somewhere in France. But by the time the film’s final reel rolls around, it has emerged as an exploration of the possibilities for Europe’s post-crash future in the hands of the grandchildren of those the filmmaker once dubbed the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.
But the medium matters as much as any message. Godard shot Film Socialisme on digital video and takes full advantage not only of its crispness and vivid color, but also its potential for distortion and garish hues and skips and stutters, all part of reminding you, as ever, that you’re watching a movie, a construct. He shoots on windy decks with no screen on the microphone, capturing the wind’s distorted rumble as well as the dialogue, just one of a number of sound strategies that are disjointing. And then there are the subtitles. The Kino Lorber edition comes with two sets: English subtitles for what’s actually said in a half-dozen languages and Godard’s own custom-crafted “Navajo” English subtitles, with sentences of dialogue and voice-over reduced to a few words and neologisms. If you’re not a polyglot European, you’re missing part of the point, which is part of Godard’s point. Another bold innovation in a most surprising film.