By John H. Foote
After going off the air in 2005 to the outrage of its many followers, myself among them, Deadwood returned to HBO Sunday night. The Emmy nominated and winning series remains the greatest program I have experienced in my years of TV watching. Beautifully detailed, rich in character development, the language near Shakespearean, profane, violent, a gritty depiction of the Old West. Perhaps most shocking was the portrayal of women, who are either whores, wives or wealthy. Much was made of the very coarse language within the series, but were assured by the gifted writer David Mitch, it was accurate. My wife and I were hooked after the first episode, never missing an episode, mourning the series when it just stopped with no explanation.
And was it missed.
What perhaps audiences did not realize was how much the actors missed doing the series. Roles like this, writing like this are once in a lifetime and the actors knew it. They mourned the surprising end after just three seasons as much as hardcore fans did, perhaps more. Never before had such an exceptional ensemble of actors been brought together for storytelling on television. Each episode was looked forward to from week to week, and never were we disappointed.
The performances, the characters were simply astonishing, and remain so. Before the film, I went back and binged, watching all three seasons in preparation of the film. My God what an extraordinary piece of television, such creativity and yes, genius.
Set a decade after the last scene of the series, which saw murderous gold tycoon George Hearst leave the new town after terrorizing its citizens, it settles in nicely.
The characters have clearly aged, mellowed, well some of them, as the town in South Dakota becomes a State. Telephone lines are being set up across the Black Hills, connecting the one-time camp, now burgeoning town to the outside world.
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) the ferocious yet oddly decent owner of the Gem Saloon still presides over the town, though he has been told by Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) he is very ill. Marshall Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), his temper curbed, is now father to three children, still self righteous, unable to look past an injustice, though not as quick to shoot. And back into town rides Jane Cannery (Robin Wiegert), Calamity Jane to those who know her, a drunken hell raiser but a most loyal friend.
Returning to town is Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), the obscenely wealthy widow Hearst (Gerald McRaney) drove from town years ago after murdering her husband to terrorize into selling her massive gold claim, and to the dismay of all, Hearst is here too, now a Senator, still a vicious murderer, willing to kill anyone to advance his reach in the world.
The rest of the massive cast is here too, Kim Dickens as Joanie Stubbs, recovering from the devastation of losing Jane, the love of her life; loyal Sol Starr (John Hawkins), best friend to Bullock, about to have a child with former whore Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) and Jane’s good friend, Charlie Utter, who was best friend to legendary Will Bill Hickok, killed in season one of the series, greets some of the characters as they arrive by train into town.
Hearst gets things moving, ordering the brutal murder of the well liked, much respected Utter because the man will not sell Hearst a parcel of land. Murdered as he sings a tune on his land, the killers do not realize there is a witness, who falls under Bullocks’ protection. A murder attempt on the witness forces Bullock into action and he finds the line drawn directly to his nemesis, Hearst, whom he calls out in the street, enraging the vicious killer.
What Hearst, the great Senator, does not count on is the collective hatred for him in the town, the sheer number of men and women he has wronged with his actions. When attacked being taken to jail by Bullock, the normally by the book Marshall steps back and allows the angry mob to beat Hearst, to give them a small boon of satisfaction against the monster. This sequence also explores how loyal the citizens are to one another, how their admiration and love has forged an unbreakable bond with each other. The killing of the much liked Utter, pushes them over the edge, which Hearst, possessing loyalty to no one but himself, did not count on.
The film gives all the outstanding actors brief scenes, leaving us wanting more. Mr. We still does not speak much English but rather than drawing his conversations to Al, now has his grandson translate; Johnny is older, still loyal to Al, willing to shoot it out with the henchman of Hearst if needed as is Al’s much relied on killer Dan Dorrity, still taking orders, still following them to the letter.
The problem is two hours just is not enough, I wanted more, and more.
Ian McShane is brilliant, again, as expected as Al, the truly terrifying owner of the Gem who while a scheming killer is also capable of great kindness. Remember Al bought Jewel, the crippled cook, to keep her from harm and the closing moments display that they have an affection that runs deep. Remember Al putting the poor brain tumour afflicted minister out of his misery, gently holding him, whispering, “You can go now brother” as he suffocates him. Yet when pushed Al too, like Hearst, is capable of evil. He sees much of himself in Hearst, which is why he never under estimates him. What never ceases to amaze me about Al are his acts of goodness, such as holding the young hooker as she sleeps rather than demanding sex, or giving away Trixie, who once shared his bed, in marriage with a gentle kiss on the cheek. A lovely farewell. Or finally allowing handicap-capped Jewel to rub his feet, making clear to those in the room this had obviously happened often, and gave him relief. Who knew their often-contentious relationship had such tenderness?
Olyphant is equally superb as Bullock, unable to look past injustice, willing to defend those who cannot defend themselves. That glare, which shows unspeakable rage, that walk, purposeful, confident, unstoppable is as frightening as it is heroic. That he is older has not softened him, being a father has done that, but he is no less angry.
One of the finest performances in the series was always underrated Robin Wiegert as Calamity Jane, a vulgar, hard drinking woman who is one of the boys. Arriving in season one with Hickock, she remained in camp, showing a gift for healing when small pox broke out and fell in love with Joanie Stubbs. Nothing about her has changed, she mourns Utter as deeply as she did Hickock, and emerges a hero when a supposed loyal man attempts to kill Bullock, tries to shoot him in the back. Jane trusts her instincts, follows the man and guns him down, saving the life of Bullock, who knows how close death came.
Gerald McRaney remains a superb villain as Hearst, smiling, dishing out baleful stares that suggest doom, rarely threatening but making threats with his stares. So confident his money can buy him out of any situation he finds himself in, he is shameless, strutting about the rooftop canopy of the hotel like a peacock for all to see. Little does he know that in the street, rage has built up against him, growing into an explosion he does not see coming. McRaney does a splendid job conveying the monster but also the fear, the genuine fear of a tyrant brought down.
Dourif, Hawkes, Malcolmson, anf Dickens are all perfect in smaller roles, each leaving us wanting more.
David Milch is a huge talent, but this might be his last great work. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the spring.
His legacy will forever be Deadwood which will be appreciated for years to come as the work of art it is, both series and to a lesser extent, this film. Please do not mistake me, this film is very good, but by the end I wanted more. There has never been shame in wanting more of a good thing, and two hours simply does not allow enough time for the robust characters within Deadwood to collectively shine. Still, it was a superb, sad, haunting two hours of television I will not soon forget.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”