Review: Deadwood: The Movie (2019)


Like a surprise visit from an old friend, Deadwood returns to us, not quite as we remembered it, but still a beloved, exceptional work of storytelling as it was all those years ago. Deadwood: The Movie, set 10 years after the third season and coming out 13 years after the series abruptly concluded, finds its characters a bit older, its world a bit more institutionalized, but its pleasures no less potent than on first encounter. Instead of serving as a sequel to the series, Deadwood: The Movie is more a tender coda, offering a touch of bittersweet closure to a series that refused any such finality during its original run. It’s a remarkable work and one of the best long-delayed sequels of recent years.

Directed by series veteran Daniel Minahan and written by David Milch, Deadwood: The Movie is not only a final statement on the series of rapscallions, bastards, and honest strivers that comprise the historical frontier town, but a final artistic statement from Milch, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year and who is unlikely to make another substantial work due to mental degradation. The film is about the passage of time and the surety of change, and, of course, death. For the writer who made his name co-creating NYPD Blue before making Deadwood as well as the short-lived dramas, John from Cincinatti and Luck, the obsession with closure applies as much to his artistic career as the characters’ lives in the film. Thus, Deadwood: The Movie is the swan song for the influential television creator and the capper to his legacy as a storyteller.

The plot centres on Deadwood entering the Union with South Dakota statehood in 1889. The psychotic capitalist tycoon, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), returns to Deadwood now as a senator and he’s promptly set back on a collision course with U.S. Marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and pimp Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) after discovering that Al tricked him about killing Trixie (Paula Malcomson) at the end of season three. Unlike most movies, Deadwood: The Movie doesn’t attempt to make its storyline comprehensible for viewers who haven’t seen the television series. It’s written for loyal viewers of the television series, playing on their familiarity with the show in the past and their return to the storyworld now in the present.

Much of the film is given over to reflection on the series. Deadwood was infamously cancelled before the main conflict between the citizens of Deadwood and the tycoon George Hearst was resolved. Milch and the cast assumed another season was coming, but HBO abruptly cancelled the series, making the third season finale also the series finale. The film provides closure that the series could never have. As a result, it allows closure for character relationships and, by extension, the viewer’s (and creator’s) relationship to the work itself.

To this end, Milch and Minahan employ flashbacks to key sequences from the series throughout. Ostensibly meant to remind viewers about the context for confrontations in the film, the flashbacks are more powerful as reminders of the passage of time. Much like the flashbacks in T2 Trainspotting and Blade Runner 2049, the flashbacks here stand out not for the warm glow of nostalgia, but for its pain; they’re reminders of old wounds. Like those late sequel films, Deadwood: The Movie showcases the ways that looking back is a painful act.

But those reminders of the past also fuel the film’s notes of grace, such as a dance between Seth Bullock and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), former lovers who were unable to sever their passion for each other even if circumstances and duty severed their relationship. However, here, both older and a bit wiser, they share the dance not as a rekindling of their past romantic flame, but as a means of moving beyond it, of acknowledging care for the other but also dedication to their current lives, one as a husband, the other as a mother. The film is full of such grace notes, which are sometimes visual, such as Seth returning home to his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn), and their children during a rare snowstorm, but more often than not verbal, leaning into Milch’s uncanny talent for loquacious dialogue.

From a passive viewpoint, it’s easy to take these moments as superfluous fan service, but that would be missing the point that affection for the characters is the whole operating principle of the series. Deadwood has never been about plot or formal thrills, even if it’s exceptionally made, and especially well designed. Its focus is more on the characters: their fanciful speeches, their outbursts of anger, the ways they stare each other down in close quarters or share a drink to bury the hatchet. The plot is merely an excuse to get these characters together, to have them inhabit the same town and to let us watch them go about their lives and build up a semblance of civilization in the Black Hills. Although there is more urgency to the plot in the film than in the series, the character moments are still front and centre.

The point about the show’s exploration of civilization is key as well, as the show was always about how community is formed by individuals, often at odds with each other, and how civilization is usually the powerful imposing their will upon the masses of the helpless, often through the methods of capital and violence and colonialism. Deadwood: The Movie continues the series’ indictment of America as a project of capital and the state, most especially in its use of George Hearst as the soulless stand-in for American capital, but also for how it shows the progress of civilization as a gradual erasing of the individual desires and eccentricities of the people that comprise it. In Deadwood: The Movie, Deadwood is more civilized than ever before, but it is not safer, nor is it a more moral place. It’s merely more controlled.

Deadwood: The Movie is not meant for casual viewing or the late arrival of the uninitiated, but nor should it be. It’s a graceful coda for this Western symphony of violence, wit, and the most deliciously ostentatious cursing ever put to film. What makes it all the more bittersweet is the knowledge that this is really, truly the end. But there’s great satisfaction here as well in finally getting the ending that was teased about for years and deserved over a decade ago. I’m thankful the film exists, in the form it does, and for the chance to once more visit this dusty western town and bear witness to the florid proclamations and exciting showdowns therin.

9 out of 10

Deadwood: The Movie (2019, USA)

Directed by Daniel Minahan; written by David Milch; starring Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, W. Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, Anna Gunn, John Hawkes, Leon Rippy, William Sanderson, Robin Weigert, Brent Sexton, Sean Bridgers, and Gerald McRaney.