Review: Deadwood The Movie

Director: Daniel Minahan

Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Gerald McRaney

David Milch is one of America’s greatest living writers and – for three beautiful years between 2004 and 2006 – Deadwood was his magnum opus, albeit a work left tantalisingly unfinished. The prestigious and foul-mouthed HBO show was abruptly cancelled at the end of its third season for the usual frustrating and infantile reasons, leaving numerous story threads dangling. Time passed. As with Twin Peaks, its fan base came to some acceptance that this was the way of things and they could but wonder what would have been.

Then, as with Twin Peaks, a minor miracle happened.

But time has passed. Milch, an itinerant gambler, has fallen foul of his habit and bought himself incredible debt. Other shows he’s attempted to set sail caught ill winds. And recently he candidly revealed an Alzheimer’s diagnosis that has made writing Deadwood: The Movie hard. Though if you didn’t know of it, there’s little evidence of such struggle in this 110 minute send off, belated as it is.

Milch’s way with words is as chiselled, poetic and goddamn beautiful as ever, prone to wit and wiliness. And soliloquy. This TV movie returns to the Black Hills with Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) doing the same, and waxing lyrical over the severity of her own farts. It’s now 188_, and the camp is set to celebrate joining the union and becoming part of South Dakota. Reunions are abound, as Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) returns, as does Californian senator George Hearst (Gerald McRaney); the latter to deliver a key address, in spite of the various well-worn vendettas against him dotted throughout camp.

Virtually all of the vast ensemble cast return for this openly nostalgic special. So we find Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) facing further ill-health; Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) a camp elder and family man; E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) still running the Grand Central and acting, pitifully, as mayor. And many more besides. The opening act of Deadwood The Movie is veritably preoccupied with parading the many residents before the camera for celebration.

The effect of which is strange. As with Twin Peaks, the weathering of age on most faces is, frankly, distracting, setting the prior three seasons firmly in the past, instead of existing in a bubble away from time, preserved through rewatches. Stacking these re-introductions up so swiftly is a matter of necessity, but it gives the feel of fan service, and raises fears of emptiness in this victory lap. But such thoughts are dispelled by the urgent need to cover narrative ground.

The first three seasons of Deadwood told their respective stories over twelve hours a piece. The Movie has no such luxury, and has to condense itself to just two. There’s the mildest sense of a filleted season about proceedings (one can well imagine how the events here might’ve be divided into more verbose chapters), but the movement of the story, though swift, feels natural. There is time, still, for pithy dialogue exchanges, contemplative asides and brooding tension. Even wedding bells. The portioning of screen time feels fair – for the most part – and Milch even has the gall to hand us a new character or two.

The return of George Hearst (and McRaney’s towering performance in the role) drives events forward as once again the camp wrestles with advancement. The future presses upon it. A train already stations there, and Hearst intends to cross the area with telephone poles; his path blocked by a plot of land owned by Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Tempers flare, heads butt, and blood will out as Deadwood once again faces destruction at the appetites of greed and mania. Perhaps most frustratingly, while many characters receive fitting send-offs, Deadwood still manages to bow out on an anticlimactic note. Resolution isn’t fully attained, and the sense that even this late return deserves a sequel lingers in the air. That seems exceedingly unlikely to happen.

But it is worth celebrating what has achieved here, which is a lot. Veteran TV director Daniel Minahan is a sturdy choice to helm; familiar with the camp’s muddy thoroughfare. Deadwood The Movie adheres to the aesthetics of the show of old. It still feels like a TV piece, even if it is the best fuckin’ TV piece around. It may well be a love-in, but considering all that was set against it, its very existence is kind of astounding.

The show will always be the show. The best bloody show to air this century so far. Deadwood The Movie is a fond tip of the hat to past achievements, and a valiant attempt to not just honour the past, but to wrestle with it once more.

Score:  3.5

 

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