Deadwood: The Movie (2019) REVIEW
When I finished David Milch’s Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006) a few weeks back I thought the show could’ve gone on for at least another season. The finale was almost anticlimactic but when I found out a sequel movie existed I foraged for a place to watch it and viewed in awe. The show’s ‘loose ends’ (i.e. Hearst) are all addressed in the movie and in a nutshell, I’d say it’s incredibly satisfying and a HBO masterpiece.
A Short Outline of Deadwood (2004-2006)
Deadwood, labelled as the ‘filthily good drama’, is about a fictional town in late 19th century South Dakota where power and influence is greedily sought after. Despite its fictionality, it features a handful of real life figures who were traders, businessmen, historical figures such as ‘Calamity’ Jane.
The town of Deadwood is an accurate representation of the spontaneous camps that surfaced during the gold rush and due to their spontaneity they weren’t under the thumb of the government and thus were lawless. As a result, Deadwood is self-sustaining with judicial systems slowly forming but corruption overruling them motivated by jealousy and greed.
The Key Players
The gold trade overshadows the entire show as Alma Garett (Molly Parker) and her claim attracts the good the bad and the ugly who seek ownership or shares in her land.
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is the illustrious, ruthless pimp who owns The Gem saloon and is influential in the camp through his dealings with other businesses and role as an overseer of the camp. His motives and morals are questionable, and he always seems to be in the loop.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is the classic protagonist whose beliefs are in line with justice and the general pursuit of goodness and peace. He acts as the Sheriff of Deadwood. The mentioned characters are more or less the main players in the show who dictate its pace and direction through their actions.
Where does the movie pick up?
The acclaimed show only ran for three seasons from 2004 to 2006 with the follow-up coming thirteen years later in 2019. The movie picks up around a decade after the events of the show as we are reintroduced to the grimy Deadwood camp and its rugged inhabitants.
Al Swearengen is afflicted by a serious illness whereby he must stay inside and rest a per the Doc’s orders, Alma returns to the camp with a grown-up Sophia and George Hearst searches to dominate Deadwood once again after a decade since his departure. Jonie Stubbs is the new owner of the Bella Union after Sy’s supposed death as Jane seeks to reconnect with her after years apart and Trixie is pregnant. The rest of the camp looks pretty much the same barring age and Seth Bullock’s thick, grey moustache and slightly stronger South Dakota accent.
Recap/Overview of Deadwood: The Movie (2019)
This movie is a great sequel to the show and gives fans closure on the George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) storyline. The movie more or less revolves around his actions. Hearst arrives in Deadwood after ten years as an accomplished US senator and is greeted by crowds of people as he gives a speech.
On his way out of Deadwood, a pregnant Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) walks onto her balcony and throws slurs and accusations at him. The season three storyline of Trixie shooting Hearst after Mr Garrett’s murder and Al’s savage and desperate actions to protect her are revisited. At this time, Hearst believed Trixie dead and now seeing her alive his vendetta against Swearengen is reignited.
The tension and drama in the movie originates here as Hearst is irked by Swearengen’s betrayal. The gold trade is still fledgling and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) owns a nice piece of land left by Mr Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) which Hearst has his eye on. Utter is resolute and refuses to sell the land to Hearst. Two of Hearst’s men murder Utter so that his land can be auctioned for Hearst to claim.
Utter’s body is discovered by Bullock and Sol Star (John Hawkes) who see Samuel (Franklyn Ajaye) hiding near the scene. He says that he saw the murderers but cannot snitch due to his position as a black man in the south. When the auction for the land commences Alma outbids Hearst to claim the land and preserve Utter’s wish. Utter’s murderers are eventually identified by E.B Farnum (William Sanderson) and Bullock is notified.
The murderers are tipped off that Samuel is in the Marshal’s office and take him out of his cell for lynching. Bullock intervenes when a child alerts him of the situation. The murderers are taken to the thoroughfare in front of Hearst’s balcony and are forced to admit Hearst ordered them. Abruptly, just before one of the men speaks he is shot in the head by Hearst as the camp watches on the side lines. Hearst is clearly revealed as the perpetrator and Bullock sets out to capture him.
Time passes as Trixie and Star marry one another. The joyous occasion is interrupted by Hearst who aims to deal with Trixie by introducing two sheriffs to apprehend her. Bullock boldly takes over the situation and berates the sheriffs on their rude and brash entrance before noting Hearst’s own crimes which he deals with under his own custody. Hearst is cuffed and taken through the thoroughfare as his guilt is officially confirmed; he is hit by stray objects by locals until moderately severe injury.
Bullock shoots his pistol in the air to disperse the mob as he takes Hearst into the Marshal’s office. One of the camp members, the guy who guards the school, is revealed as the person who told Heart’s men about Samuel. He is on the brink of shooting Bullock in the back before ‘Calamity’ Jane (Robert Weigart) shoots the shooter in the back. Hearst remains in prison.
The last scene involves the ailing Al Swearengen who is visited by Trixie, the woman who he truly cares for and loves. Al seems to be on his last legs and the film ends with his hand clutching Trixie’s.
My Thoughts on the film
First of all, the film’s production was exceptional with the iconic Deadwood set being revisited along with the classic Wild West costume design. The producers also rendered the characters and location with attention to detail fitting with its parent show.
Story wise, the choice to end the film with Al and Trixie was heartwarming which is the least likely adjective I would have thought to describe Deadwood. Trixie was the only person Al genuinely cared about in the camp and since his defence of her in episode one of the show their bond has grown. The writers have poetically made the character arcs of Al and Trixie begin and end with each other epitomising their complex friendship.
The ending can be read in two ways. Either Al died from his affliction or he manages to survive. In the film, Doc Cochran does note that there is ‘no moral certainty’ that Al would die from his illness. However, Al looks convincingly on the brink of death.
It’s the type of ending with a subtle but impactful cliffhanger if read into. The final twitch of his hand is either a glimmer of life and hope or an uncontrolled death spasm which we the audience are captivated by. In essence, the writers opted for an ending akin to Christopher Nolan’s Inception or David Chase’s The Sopranos which makes us fans begging for clarification. Either way the ending is suitably profound and perfectly put together.
In my opinion, the standout performers in this movie were Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane.
Olyphant portrays Bullock just as accurately and well as he did thirteen years ago which is an incredible feat given such a time gap. Albeit Bullock seems like the ideal and arguably simple protagonist, Olyphant portrays his moral struggles and leadership choices in a way which truly demonstrates the burdens and expectations as a sheriff in Deadwood. The subtleties of his character i.e. equal treatment of races and the like are what make him the perfect protagonist.
Ian McShane portrays the notorious Al Swearengen in a dire state of ill health in the movie whose adamant urges to deal with Hearst magnify his internal struggle. The classically strong and controlling Swearengen seems to be the opposite now he is ill, and McShane balances this expectation versus reality expertly. One of the strengths of the movie is evoking a sense that the show never left as there is a seamless continuation of its atmosphere. Swearengen’s character goes down in history as one of the best television characters of all time from his perfectly delivered dialogue, monologues and responses to his tactical supremacy.
Overall, Deadwood (2019) is probably the best film sequel to a show I have seen and gains full marks in this department. Deadwood: The Movie is strongly predicated on knowing the show but as a standalone still delivers. The piece also boasts an incredible 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating.