Deadwood: The Movie Review (Spoiler-Free)
HBO returns to Deadwood with a movie designed to bury the cult series with praise and nostalgia for its vision of the Old West.
Saying goodbye to someone you love can be difficult. Never even getting the opportunity is worse. Such is the case with Deadwood, David Milch’s cult Western classic from a different era of HBO prestige programming. Hailing of that time before premium cable darlings were expected to compete with cinematic production values, Milch crafted an artful but decidedly niche series in which cowboys spoke with the eloquence of Shakespearean princes while bathing in the verbal vulgarity of, well, a 19th century frontier brothel. The result was a ponderous but often profound show for its most faithful—and a curiosity for its network which cancelled the series after three seasons and with more plot threads lost in the wilderness than the steers of an abandoned cattle drive.
Thus enters Deadwood: The Movie, the long-anticipated conclusion that Milch and HBO have negotiated the merits of for 13 years since the show’s cancellation, and which now arrives less like an actual film than a cast reunion doubling as a belated series finale. Complete with weddings, funerals, and more than a few bodies being added to the South Dakotan dirt, Deadwood is a rip-roaring return to the most loquacious corner of the Old West, albeit one meant exclusively for locals looking for closure. If you’ve never been this way before, there are years of bad blood which will go right over your head and then seep into the pig troughs.
Set 10 years after we last left this cast of characters, what is remarkable is how little they have changed when Deadwood: The Movie begins. Ian McShane’s deliriously garrulous Al remains the owner of the Gem saloon and bordello on the main street, albeit he is now approaching true delirium as the woes that accompany a life well debauched are closing in. He also still enjoys that fascinating relationship with the town’s one straight arrow, wrathful Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), whose strained marriage to his brother’s widow Martha (Anna Gunn) has seemingly flourished in the interceding decade, complete with a new trio of kids. Sol Star (John Hawkes) is also still in a refreshingly doting romance with former prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson), and they now even have a baby on the way. Meanwhile all of the other familiar background players like Brad Dourif’s Doc and W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority flitter in the wings, waiting for their big moment which will come.
By contrast, the camp itself is in a state of transition and heading toward respectability, as personified by the new telephone poles connecting these muddy streets to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the man most responsible for that double-edged sword of modernity is George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the returning season 3 big bad who comes back to Deadwood with his institutional power even more entrenched—Hearst is now a U.S. Senator in California—and his greed ever insatiable.
No longer satisfied with mining deeds, Hearst has one eye on the future by way of a swath of land owned by Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) that would be perfect for telephone-cable expansion, as well as one in the past given his unfinished business with Trixie. She might be a mother-to-be but she’s also the woman who almost murdered him a decade back. Along with other wild cards returning to town like a still very wealthy Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) and the haunted Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), each fortuitously returning on the exact same day, Deadwood appears on a track toward the reckoning between the future and past that Swearengen and Bullock always dreaded.
The beauty and tragedy of a character like Al Swearengen is crystallized via one of the many chestnuts of profane wisdom he drops throughout the movie to anyone and no one. “Saloon is a sanctuary,” he whines upon discovering there are requests for him to install a telephone in the Gem. “Every man worth the name knows the value of being unreachable.” So too does Milch in the long-gestating finale he crafts here. Despite being cut from the oldest of moving picture traditions via Western setting, his Deadwood’s cryptic ambiguity of what is moral and what is just has always been appealingly unreachable. Situations can look as black and white as a would-be robber baron coming to town and preying on the flock Bullock and Swearengen each view in their own way as their responsibility, but how they respond to that vulture’s presence and how their relationship is further grounded in something approximating an unspoken friendship is not, with Bullock’s enraged righteousness often being tempered by Swearengen’s calculated malleability. At least that is until his unique relationship with Trixie, his favorite girl with her own tortured form of a heart of gold, is threatened by the vulture.
This is the conflict at the heart of Deadwood: The Movie as three conflicting Western archetypes must again find common ground in the unwinnable fight of deterring progress and all the demons that come with it. However, that through-line of Deadwood: The Movie is less the driving plot than one of several subplots rather hastily reintroduced so they can then be concluded as how they were intended by Milch more than a decade ago. The result is a film that doesn’t reach its inciting conflict until the 45-minute mark, but in the meantime does what Deadwood always did best in its better seasons: spend time with these characters.
As a diehard fan of Deadwood’s first season—and more passive spectator of its latter two years—I cannot deny the nostalgic catnip of seeing Alma and Bullock lock eyes together for the first time in years, or Calamity Jane finally step foot back into the Bella Union and discover Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) still waiting for her in her own fashion. A simple cognizant test between Doc and Al about what day of the week it is becomes a five-minute opening salvo of philosophical debate that underscores how wonderful McShane and Dourif are as these characters, and how much we would’ve loved to spend each one of these last 13 years watching McShane’s bad man flirt with breaking good. Or Olyphant go bull in a china shop just as often.
Hence this is very much another episode of Deadwood while also rushing in a hurry to be the last episode of Deadwood. With moments of paramount importance in these characters’ lives unspooling with delicate scripted grace but the pacing propulsion of a locomotive, viewers are sped through enough major story beats that could filled a season of Deadwood episodes, and which in fact does more or less look like a cliff notes version of the season 4 Milch had planned. Consequently, most of the characters appeared to have been in a form of stasis in the intervening years since the series’ cancellation, with Sol and Trixie still at the dawn of their relationship that is a decade further down the road, and Calamity Jane still trying to turn the corner of moving past Wild Bill Hickok’s death with Joanie at her side, a feat they were already edging toward in season 3. Little of it actually takes much advantage of the time jump between series and movie, and even less of it feels like an actual movie.
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Shot by Deadwood and HBO stalwart Daniel Minahan like the biggest budgeted finale in Deadwood history, this is very much an expanded installment of television, complete with inserted flashbacks of the series to jog the memories of casual fans about where season 3 left things. But this is not to say that there isn’t enough material for a film; in many ways there is almost too much since every supporting character’s arc has to be concluded and ended in a narrative ostensibly about the threat of Hearst’s return to the camp. But as a finale to its series, it is most definitely satisfying. Each arc achieves the type of ending that services fans’ fond memories of this world, as opposed to threatening it as was the case with HBO’s Game of Thrones only a few weeks back. Whereas that more mainstream fantasy series went for an ending designed to polarize, the more high-minded Deadwood ends just short of a bow being wrapped around its personages.
Which is fine. After so much time, we are less here to challenge Deadwood’s memory than we are to bury it with praise. Like a gregarious wake, there is many a moment that we can all cheer along to, and one hell of a final line of dialogue to send the series out on a buzzy smile. It does not live up to the complexity and beauty of the series it ends, but it ends that series in a way that lets fans continue treasuring the richer journey that got us to this welcomed, final embrace.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.