Set a decade after Al Swearengen’s (Ian McShane) successful ‘Hail Mary’ plan that saved the lives of the community fighting against George Hearst’s (Gerald McRaney) avalanche of money and near hostile takeover; Deadwood has grown into a burgeoning new state in the Union, South Dakota. Now a California Senator, Hearst returns to legitimise their existence and ply his trade of taking what he needs to expand his empire. After being showered by a hail of cunts by Trixie (Paul Malcomson), he suspects that he was duped during his last visit and demands satisfaction. Unfortunately for Hearst, a decade of additional vintage for his sparring partners in Deadwood - Al (McShane), Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) have considerably improved their potency.
It’s unheard of before this venture that a network would flip the script a full decade after the series is over for resurrection, but oh boy are we blessed that they did. David Milch, the genius and engine of the series, brings back his ‘dramatic personae’ with more mileage which helps him both catapult us forward, and yet be tethered to the past. HBO spare no expense in the period construction for this single cinematic venture is outstanding. A feature of the series was that the town of Deadwood felt completely lived in.The burgeoning industrial revolution has provided stability and clean edges, but the streets haven’t all the way ascended from the muck. The architecture is a collision between eras. Steam punks are just hanging flags off their pricks relishing this evolving space.
Political distrust was always rife in Deadwood, however in 2019 corruption agents of compliance and counter intelligence are as important to the cause as their masters. Fleas need their dogs. Witnesses too are far more problematic when they’re a racial minority - there’s no Nigger General Fields here, it’s Franklin Ajai’s Samuel. Relishing the profound simplicity of fishing in the bend of a beautiful creek, he witnesses agents committing murder and connects the dots to Hearst. In Deadwood, as you would expect, living witnesses to bad deeds are something to be taken care of. However in flash forward coda to the series, those legitimised by power have evolved their methods to something decidedly less overt.
Your favourite characters chart their own course for growth or are stuck in reflexive cycles of self destruction. Milch isn’t afraid to alter perceptions (Willam Sanderson’s E.B Farnum has tempered his power hoarding mania), or to affectionately affirm their consistency (Dayton Callie’s Charlie Utter continues to be a beacon of steadfast morality and respect). Life in Deadwood, experiencing the same scene, overcoming the fallout of their war with Hearst’s future; the world turned while they were standing still. Now they’re drawn back together. There’s electricity in their interactions. They’re haunted by their actions, inactions and missed opportunities - flashbacks are deployed with frequency but it doesn’t tire, the director Daniel Minahan (director of two of Deadwood’s greatest episodes - ‘Mr Wu’ and “Suffer the Little Children”) does a superb job of giving birth to the past in the framing of the present.
In Matt Zoller Seitz’s review he cannily observes that “Like so many sets of Deadwood episodes, the movie observes Aristotelian unities of time and place, unfolding within the span of three days.” I would expand and expound to say that it’s times and place. Minahan’s flashbacks make one able to enjoy a rich experience of feeling the familiarity of key moments in the series, but gives you the recall. With a mirrored position/callback, a visceral description, a glance across the room loaded with memory and ‘whoosh’ the golden glow of memory as if refracted through a bottle of the Gem Saloon’s whiskey, fills the screen.
The women of Deadwood are the most striking feature of Deadwood: The Movie. From the opening frames that call back to the very first episode of the series, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) swanning alongside the winding descent on her lumbering donkey, chattering to herself and swilling whiskey out of bottle to get the guts to admit to Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) that she was wrong about leaving - distills the sentiment of why we’re here. We’re here for a chance, however fleeting to change our course. Next is Alma Garrett and the now all grown up Sofia - arriving in town for the festivities as representatives of the Deadwood bank - while in fact Alma yearns to be face-to-face with Bullock. Alma you see, has amassed such wealth that if Hearst was once an unstoppable force, she’s now got the bank roll of an immoveable object. Relief is the overwhelming feeling; but it’s not consolation it’s liberating.
And then of course how could one possibly talk about Deadwood: The Movie without discussing Al (McShane) and Bullock (Olyphant). McShane is the centre of the Deadwood universe. He’s the most natural expression of Milch’s mind. The tragedy of the revelations of Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis seems fused with Al’s cirrhosis of the liver. This debilitating affliction may have tempered his bulldog physicality, but his mind remains at grandmaster level. It’s the role that McShane was born to play; having him back in the saddle nursing whiskey and dealing in fucks and cocksuckers is a reassuring and warming thing that we don’t fully deserve.
In a a recent Vulture interview about the experience, Olyphant reflected that it was only in hindsight that he could appreciate the experience of Bullock. Hearing Milch on his shoulder in a way through all other jobs. This time, Olyphant said “I wasn’t looking for answers anymore. I was enjoying dying on my own sword.” It’s a thicker moustache for a slightly thickened man but Olyphant’s Bullock is still delightfully conflicted, torn between desire and righteousness. Bullock knows who he is in the moments he can step outside of his body and see his potential for apathy in the eyes of Martha (Anna Gunn).
When last we encountered Al Swearengen he was scrubbing Jen’s blood from the floor, refusing to tell Johnny something pretty about the entire devastating affair. A decade older and here he is infused with deep satisfaction and peace that he can rest. I’ve noticed that I have a deep affinity for filmmakers and storytellers who are at home wielding the literal and metaphorical simultaneously. Milch, who I’m particularly fond of opens Deadwood: The Movie with a locomotive, something we’d never seen before in the series. The future is here, absorbing the relics of the past. We’ve had our chance to view the resurrection and synthesis of Milch’s genius, and once again Al’s words are left ringing in our ears. Last time it was don’t go, this time it’s rest easy.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.