×
Back to IndieWire

‘Deadwood’ Review: David Milch’s HBO Movie Is a Bittersweet and Brutally Honest Triumph

Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant saddle up for one last ride in a moving ode to time gone by — and the gallant fight to keep its passage at bay.

Deadwood Movie Ian McShane HBO Films

Ian McShane in “Deadwood”

Warrick Page/HBO

The closing line of David Milch’s “Deadwood” movie is one of the greatest ever written. Part epitaph, part rebuke of that very thought, the ending note to Milch’s long-awaited follow-up to an epic western cut short is every bit as enlivening, powerful, and motherfucking final as fans could want. Of course, the words won’t be spoiled here, but the same encouraging sentiments can be said for the film overall, as a cast emboldened by grand dialogue and towering themes returns for a simple story, beautifully told.

Given the brevity of the film, as well as its unencumbered plotting, here are the few details you need to know before diving in:

  • The “Deadwood” movie picks up 10 years after the end of Season 3, as the citizens of Deadwood gather to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood.
  • These festivities serve to bring everyone back in one place, and all of the original cast returns for the film. Even some unexpected, once prominent actors make their way back into the mix. The sole missing player is Powers Boothe, who played Bella Union saloon owner Cy Tolliver. He died in 2017 after fighting pancreatic cancer.
Deadwood Timothy Olyphant John Hawkes

Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes in “Deadwood”

Warrick Page/HBO

  • Whether you watched every episode of the first three seasons or are new to Milch’s western world, you will find plenty to enjoy and appreciate about the “Deadwood” movie. It won’t serve the same experience to veterans and newcomers, as its resonance doubles for anyone carrying endearing feelings for the characters, but it still works surprisingly well as a standalone feature.

The rest is best preserved for viewing or the same as you remember it: Milch’s gift for poetic conversation remains as enrapturing as it is remarkable. Only a writer so in tune with his characters, setting, and attitude could start an exchange with “sewn to a moral certainty” and end with the exclamatory “cunt!” — Milch always knows how to spread vulgarities throughout dialogue for maximum impact, but it’s amazing how he can use such harsh language to endear viewers to the speaker instead of pushing them further away.

Unaltered talent extends through the cast, as well. From Robin Weigert’s jovial drunken ramblings to Molly Parker’s deep, revealing stares, the performers slip back into their characters with ease and even ratchet up their focus to fit the occasion. Olyphant brings the burden of time to Sheriff Seth Bullock’s disposition, adding an extra edge to a lawman who’s grown weary of powerful men bending his regulations. There are moment with his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) and lost love, Alma (Parker), where the former, more innocent man emerges. But Bullock is caught in a fight he knows he’s losing, just as he knows there’s no stopping, either.

McShane, to compensate for his better half’s toughening, softens Al Swearengen into a more thoughtful but no less stubborn saloon owner. Still observing the town from his balcony and making plans accordingly, Al has nevertheless changed the most. The years have taken their toll on the hard-living hustler, and as Bullock charges headfirst into impossible odds, Swearengen slows down, considering the little shifts he can make to better his odds of survival, as well as his friends. Together, the two share a literal enemy — and die-hard fans won’t be surprised who that is — but their more substantial foe is time itself.

It’s here that Milch makes an essential statement. Like the train rushing into view in the film’s first frames, some change is inevitable. Conductors could be swapped along the way, but the carried freight arrives nonetheless. Bullock, Swearengen, and the people of “Deadwood” have seen change already. From telephones to train tracks, they’ve seen time pass by and have been waiting, like we all are, for it to stop. South Dakota’s statehood always seemed like an endpoint for the series, and the film sees its arrival. Unlike other revivals, the “Deadwood” movie is not a continuation; it’s wise enough to acknowledge an ending when it’s arrived and Milch allows his characters to prepare for it accordingly.

But that doesn’t mean they have to like it. There’s something to be said for not going quietly into that good night, and “Deadwood” rages as ferociously and purposefully as ever — never flailing about for show, or succumbing to the wishes of those who will live on after they’re gone. These characters, this film, and David Milch himself are here to honor the time they had by adding a brilliant final chapter in the here and now. This is not a passive, somber goodbye, but an active preservation. Think of it as a living monument, for thinking of it as dead and gone would be too cruel a fate for these spirited motherfuckers.

Grade: A-

HBO’s “Deadwood” movie premieres Friday, May 31 at 8 p.m. ET.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox

Newswire