Deadwood: The Movie (2019) – A Magnificent Dirge to a Brilliant Series

“Our Father, which art in Heaven…”

“Let him fucking stay there.”

It strikes me as a little odd to be writing this review of a television movie that followed up a television show on a site dedicated to theatrical films specifically. But as I recall, the distinction between movies made for television versus movies made for theaters has not stopped any of my co-writers from praising works not necessarily meant for the big screen, so therefore I see no wrongdoing on my part. Or rather more appropriately, I refuse to see any of my actions as wrongdoings in reviewing something if it permits me the excuse of praising a television show that I adore as much as I adore Twin Peaks and The Wire. And that show is none other than Deadwood. From the mind of David Milch, the show ran for three seasons of 36 episodes from 2004 to 2006 before being abruptly canceled by HBO, despite rave reviews from critics and solid ratings. I will not dwell on the reasons for said cancellation, but I think it’s safe to say we were most likely robbed of several outstanding seasons of television yet to come. But Deadwood could not simply end so abruptly like any other show because Deadwood was not any other show. It created a whole world of characters filled with contradictions and gritty realism and language at times Shakespearean and at times some of the vilest sentences ever uttered in the English language. Milch tried to get a potential television film off the ground for many years and finally the stars aligned themselves and back in 2019 we saw the release of Deadwood: The Movie, and boy was it worth the wait. And just a word of caution to those of you who have yet to discover Deadwood for yourselves I issue a slight spoiler warning as I will mention certain minor events depicted throughout the entirety of the show.

Deadwood opens ten years after the events of the last season as South Dakota is on the verge of becoming a state. We see many familiar faces return, chiefly among them Mrs. Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker) arriving by train to the newly constructed railway station alongside her adopted daughter Sofia (Lily Keene). They’re greeted by Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) who takes them to a hotel in town, now run by Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes). Arriving too is Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) looking to rekindle her relationship with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), recently new owner of the Bella Union brothel since the off screen passing of Cy Tolliver (the great Powers Boothe). We meet our old favorite sweary saloon owner Al Swearangen (Ian McShane), still the same stern and tough boss but also seen in moments of weakness caused by old age and sickness. We finally meet once again the man who could be considered the villain of the entire arc of the show: George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now returning to the camp as a U.S. Senator but still the same ruthless and morally bankrupt capitalist who will stop at nothing to get to what he wants, no matter how vile the method he chooses to apply. Needless to say, these characters in the same town rip open old ghosts and memories of the past, as old plot lines from the show are resurrected.

I probably would not need to say this, but I will say it never the same: I truly loved this film. Despite this I am fully aware that it is a flawed piece of work. If I were to be truly fair and make some kind of attempt at objectivity I would say the biggest fault of this as a movie would be that it feels more like an extended episode of the show rather than a movie that could stand on its own legs. And I imagine the film was produced alongside the same improvisational manner that the show was as the plot only thinly hangs together in the end. But then again, I personally do not see any of these items as issues. This film was made strictly for the fans of the show, not for the casual viewer. Fans who, unlike myself, had to wait thirteen years to receive some kind of closure to characters that they grew to know and love and care for. And in my time of watching the show I found myself in the same position, sometimes despising a character one episode only to find myself feeling anxious when their lives were in danger in a later episode.

And what made the show great in the first place. Deadwood was never plot driven, it was always about the characters and human beings that populated its world. And I will not lie seeing virtually every character return in some capacity (with the righteous exception of Heart of course who is deserving of a most painful death) brought me tremendous joy, even if only for a short amount of screentime. Characters such as Johnny, A.W. Merrick, Harry Manning and self-proclaimed General Samuel Fields do not get the biggest amount of screentime but whenever they do appear I could not cease smiling. I even laughed out loud at the idea of Con Stapleton becoming the town minister, a small yet amusing touch.

But we do get plenty of moments with our absolute favorite bunch of cocksuckers too. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is still angry as ever pestering Al to follow his medical instructions. And especially the scenes with Al are worthwhile and refreshing. He’s still bright and as foulmouthed as ever but as previously stated, age has worn him down and he remains chiefly within the confines of his office or bed. Knowing that Milch most likely wrote these scenes as he has struggled with Alzheimer’s in recent years only adds to their effectiveness and makes Al’s arc even more moving. It also brings to mind similar moments from the original show, such as Reverend Smith’s confused and tortured mental state in the first season or Richardson comforting Aunt Lou over the death of her son in season three. Also moving is seeing Jane trying her best to express her feelings for Joanie. It manages to feel moving as well as perfectly within her character.

I will close this review by discussing the ending of the film, which I unsurprisingly adore as much as anything on the show. It manages to be incredibly moving and beautiful without ever feeling sentimental or unearned, which is an incredible feat of writing in and of itself once one is aware of how grim the world of Deadwood remains otherwise. But maybe that is where the secret to its effectiveness lies. Due to the sparsity of genuine compassion those moments hit even harder when provided within the context of a tough and brutal world. Maybe even the sickest, toughest and hardest of us can still display feelings of empathy to those around us. And to me the ending and moments of similar nature on the original show display Milch’s apparent affection for human beings, warts and all. Though we may not always show it, inside most of us is a heart willing to do good deeds. No one in Deadwood is a saint, but then again neither is any of us.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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