‘Deadwood: The Movie’ is a good western and a great finale


Courtesy of Warrick Page / HBO

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in “Deadwood: The Movie,” a return to the fan-favorite HBO series over a decade after its abrupt cancellation in 2006.

“Deadwood” creator/writer David Milch’s abrasive yet finely-wrought HBO Western series set in late-1800s South Dakota, is back. The show was nominated for 28 Emmys and won eight over the course of its roughly two-and-a-half years on air.

Now, over a decade later, fans of the show have the proper send-off they’ve long demanded after a terse season three finale, and the uninitiated have a splendidly-produced two-hour Western to enjoy.

The main plot trappings here will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Hollywood Western in the last several years or played the popular “Red Dead Redemption” video games: It’s the tail end of the 19th century, and modernity is approaching the once-wild American frontiers. In Deadwood, South Dakota, a hardscrabble working-class town of miners, brothels and saloons, the devious Sen. George Hearst (based on real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst’s father and played with delicious venom by Gerald McRaney) has returned from California with his sights set not on mining, but on telephones. He wants to to install phone lines on land he hopes to acquire from Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), and when Charlie refuses to sell, it kicks off a series of standoffs between Hearst and a crew of regulars from the show — among them the morals-tested Marshal Seth Bullock (“Justified’s” Timothy Olyphant), former prostitute and new mother Trixie (“Ray Donovan’s” Paula Malcomson) and dying saloon/brothel proprietor Al Swearengen (British actor Ian MacShane in a towering performance).

“Hearst doesn’t deserve your land, Charlie,” Bullock tells his friend early in the movie. “Nor ought I either fail to bring to mind the bastard’s disposition to foul play.”

As was true in the TV series, the movie — penned by Milch himself — has a uniquely rich style of dialogue through which characters argue and discuss dealings, desires and sometimes even the nature of reality itself. It’s metaphorical and music-like; hearing it for the first time is akin to hearing actors perform lines of Shakespeare after only having read “Hamlet” in high school. Swearing was an art form on “Deadwood” and it’s abundant here; while 19th-century prospectors probably weren’t dropping f-bombs with any regularity, perhaps it makes more sense to use today’s cuss words rather than period-accurate terms that would be lost on modern viewers. Plus, it grounds the characters’ often elegant soliloquies in the harsh reality of their environs.

While the story features an ensemble cast, Swearengen is unavoidably the standout and, crucially for the plot, he is dying of cirrhosis of the liver due to a life of drinking. He’s still a hard man, respected and feared in Deadwood, but he’s losing vitality and his work is becoming burdensome. In a scene exemplifying this, the once-proud womanizer tells prostitute Caroline (Jade Pettyjohn) upon her propositioning him that, “I am out, as I told you, of sorts — [of] commission, activity. And more and more forgetful what the whole sordid f- – -ing business is to signify.” The scene ends with the two holding each other as they fall asleep, as the normally gruff Swearengen sheds an uncharacteristic tear after uttering a final, terrifying notion: “Christ, I do have feelings.”

There’s no need to have seen the previous 36 episodes to appreciate the weight of this line, but the filmmakers have helpfully included a few discreet flashbacks to catch viewers up on key events. While some are still a bit confusing, in most cases it’s clear what you’re being shown and why.

That doesn’t change the fact that some character interactions and shared histories will carry a lot more meaning for viewers who’ve seen the show: Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert)’s relationship with former madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), for example, and even a bit of the will-they-won’t-they between the married Bullock and businesswoman Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker).

“Deadwood: The Movie” is an entertaining two hours of frontier grit and ear-tickling dialogue that should please anyone who loves well-crafted sentences and period pieces that don’t pull punches. It also happens to be a rock-solid character-driven Western on its own.