It’s been a while since we last saw the world of “Deadwood.” When David Milch’s gritty western debuted in 2004, Deadwood was a newly founded gold-mining camp on the edge of American civilization. When the series came to a premature end in 2006, the camp had become a town, and Deadwood was preparing for official entry into Dakota Territory.
As “Deadwood: The Movie” begins, a decade has passed since the events of the end of the show’s final season. It’s 1889, and as South Dakota becomes the 40th state in the Union, there’s unfinished business to attend to.
Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant headline a returning cast that has only improved with time. The two most notable absences from the original series are Powers Boothe (Cy Tolliver) and Ralph Richeson (Richardson), who sadly passed away in 2017 and 2015. Despite missing these two men, the rest of the talented ensemble makes it feel as if they’ve never stepped away from their roles. Characters we haven’t seen for years act remarkably genuine and real. It comes off as if each actor truly wrestled with how his character has evolved (or not) during the last decade.
Everything Great About the Show is Back
Watching “Deadwood: The Movie” feels as if its universe simply went on running in the background while we lived our lives. The film’s sole, weak spot may be Milch’s iconic writing. “Deadwood” has always featured characters speaking in a quasi-Shakespearean delivery. However, it’s been 12 years since he’s employed this style.
Milch’s trademark Shakespearean-Western dialect lacks the polish and natural feeling of the earlier seasons. In the mouths of some of the actors, especially in the first 30 minutes, the dialogue sounds somewhat forced and jilted. But this small distraction doesn’t last long, and the film quickly hits its stride.
McShane again shines as Al Swearengen, owner of Deadwood’s Gem Saloon. Despite McShane’s impressive body of work and the increasing popularity of the “John Wick” franchise (in which he plays Winston, the owner of another fine establishment), it’s hard not to see Swearengen as his defining role. McShane’s Swearengen has been slowed down by time, years of liquor, and poor choices, but he’s still hypnotic in every scene he’s in.
Olyphant’s portrayal of marshal Seth Bullock is more layered than in the original run. Now warily allied with Swearengen, Bullock has attempted to mellow. He’s put down stable roots with his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and built a loving home. But he still possesses his iconic hairpin-trigger temper. Events in the film push Bullock back into the fire. Olyphant doesn’t waste the opportunity and displays a refreshing amount of range. In fact, Olyphant’s turn as Bullock may be the best performance in the film—no small feat considering the cast.
A Dark, Gritty Take on the American West
For the uninitiated: “Deadwood” isn’t your grandfather’s Western. The good guys don’t all wear white hats. The bad guys can’t be detected at first sight and aren’t announced by foreboding musical cues. The film contains enough profanity to put hair on your chest faster than the harshest frontier whiskey. But unlike “Westworld”—HBO’s other Western property—“Deadwood” isn’t quite as nihilistic or bleak in its outlook for the future.
Friendship, constancy, and yes, even faith, are held up as virtues among the prevailing depravity of the camp. The show contains numerous men and women we can happily root for, even if they don’t all emerge lily-white in the end. “Deadwood’s” villains aren’t cartoonish, they’re complicated.
Yet we are clearly led to loathe those who seek power to take advantage of the helpless. Corrupt, evil men like George Hearst (a chilling Gerald McRaney) are pitted against those wishing to establish some level of justice and decency in the Wild West. Even if their methods are sometimes less than pure, “Deadwood: The Movie” features many courageous men and women fighting for The Good in the face of long odds.
“Deadwood” has always shown both the promises and perils of a society on the fringes of civilization. As exemplified by Deadwood, a community of extreme freedom without self-disciplined virtue breeds license, not liberty. It’s a beautiful-looking house, but without the necessary scaffolding, foundation, and frame to keep it standing properly. A town built like that isn’t destined to last very long before it collapses on itself.
Peace, Justice, and Freedom on the Frontier
Even without a complete breakdown, outbursts of violence or instability erupt in Deadwood throughout the show’s run. Borne out of too many broken citizens with too many vices, there’s a constant pressure for order from the outside. But those brought in to instill peace and civilization seldom give up power willingly. As Swearingen knows, once the government starts encroaching on the lives of its citizens, the expansion rarely stops.
From the start of the series, “Deadwood’s” drama has largely centered around the balance between staying in the “good books” of the right officials while trying to maintain some level of local autonomy and control. Swearingen and Bullock come to realize that a certain amount of stability must be maintained in the town even if it means keeping hot guns holstered or involves making deals with scum or corrupt government bureaucrats (but I repeat myself).
Too much disorder would attract unwanted heat from officials who have already begun to intrude on the town’s ways. The community of Deadwood is a controlled explosion inside a rocket—a single crack could lead to a calamitous premature detonation.
Deadwood’s enthralling atmosphere seesaws between a veneer of local order and incipient anarchy. In “Deadwood: The Movie,” progress and technology threaten the very nature of the town. A train now leads right to Deadwood. Telephone poles and wires are being installed at a rapid pace. Deadwood used to be a place that a man could “escape” to. By 1889, that doesn’t seem as certain. One year later, the U.S. government would officially declare the frontier “closed.” How the film subtly explores how the closing frontier affects its characters is one of its many strengths.
An Improbable, Satisfying Triumph
Even just a few years ago, the chance of a “Deadwood” reunion was a pipe dream. Fans of the series had learned to content themselves with the three seasons they were fortunate to get—even making peace with a slightly muted finale.
Social media changed all that. The buzz never truly died out. The odd rumor or crumb of gossip on Reddit kept hopes alive a little longer. Just as fan presence on Twitter and Facebook helped rescue “The Expanse” from hasty cancellation, “Deadwood’s” devoted online fandom helped maintain pressure on HBO and Milch to deliver the proper send-off that an acclaimed series of its stature deserved.
Many great shows in the last decade have ended with divisive, even maddening series finales. “Lost,” “Dexter,” “Game of Thrones,” and “How I Met Your Mother” come to mind. But remarkably, Milch and director Daniel Minahan have pulled it off. At a time it often seems like we can’t agree on much, “Deadwood: The Movie” is a welcome outlier. It’s a beautiful farewell that fans will savor and cherish.
The final five minutes feature a series of scenes set to a surprisingly heart-wrenching arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda.” After a long, rewarding journey, I suspect there’ll be quite a few determinedly strong men unable to hold back the waterworks.
“Deadwood: The Movie” is everything fans of the Western series could have hoped for, and more. Indeed, there’s a clear opening left at the end of the film for future adventures in the “Deadwood” universe. But after this poignant conclusion, it may be best to let Swearengen and Bullock finally get the rest they deserve.