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‘Deadwood: The Movie’: Once upon a time in America

  • The movie completes a long-dormant narrative in moving fashion
  • 'Deadwood' movie is now on Hotstar (as is the series), and is something like a benediction

Timothy Olyphant (left) and John Hawkes in the ‘Deadwood’ movie.
Timothy Olyphant (left) and John Hawkes in the ‘Deadwood’ movie.

In 2006, after two seasons of Shakespearean cussing and near-perfection, Deadwood was starting on a third. But HBO surprised everyone by not renewing the show, turning that season into a forced farewell to Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and other residents of the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, so carefully sketched by showrunner David Milch over 36 episodes.

Unlike The Sopranos and The Wire, the other two shows that made HBO’s reputation, Deadwood was a critical favourite that never quite became a cultural phenomenon. Still, it’s every bit as astonishing an example of world building; by the third season, just having a character walk down a street could bring half a dozen storylines into play. In the initial years after cancellation, fans were hopeful of a renewal, but none came. Then, after years of steady rumours, HBO greenlit a Deadwood movie with the original cast in 2018.

That movie is now on Hotstar (as is the series), and is—for those who mourned the awkward end—something like a benediction. It’s directed by series veteran Daniel Minahan and written by Milch in that unmistakable, filthy, burnished tone that sets Deadwood apart from pretty much any period Western ever made. The narrative picks up in 1889, 10 years after the series ended. Time has cooled the antagonistic relationship between Marshal Bullock and former pimp and power broker Swearengen, and they band together when an old enemy rides into town: George Hearst, the businessman who tormented the town in seasons 2 and 3 and is now back as a senator.

In an age where ambitious shows are increasingly labelled “cinematic", the Deadwood movie feels like a long, excellent episode of TV. This isn’t a slight, just an acknowledgment that its virtues are the ones associated with medium: efficiency, clarity, unfussiness, and the kind of emotional weight that comes from following characters over a length of time. It’s touching and rather sad to see everyone older—Al is particularly difficult to recognize as the fearsome man he used to be—and at the stage where they can regret but not change the course of their lives. Minahan makes beautiful use of the second-long flashbacks which appear in scenes involving the same characters, as if we had momentarily entered their minds.

This would seem to be the happy ending few creators get, but, in Milch’s case, it’s bittersweet. Earlier this year, it was revealed that before he began writing the movie, he found out he had Alzheimer’s. It’s a particularly Deadwoodian mixture of sorrow and triumph. There’s a scene with the town doctor (Brad Dourif) and Al talking about his failing health. “Time flows, and it stops," the medic says gently. “It’s the dispatch I find inglorious," his companion replies, sounding like the old Al for a second. “The whole delusory f***ing self-importance." When you think of Milch writing this scene, his own mortality staring him in the face, it makes the Deadwood movie almost unbearably moving.

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