MADE-FOR-HBO MOVIE "Deadwood: The Movie"
WHEN|WHERE Friday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT The year is 1889 and everything is up to date in Deadwood, which is now in the brand-new state of South Dakota. There's a train that runs through town, which is even reached by something called a telephone. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) still runs the Gem saloon and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) its competition, Bella Union. (Powers Boothe — who played Cy Tolliver, former proprietor — died in 2017.) Seth (Timothy Olyphant) and Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn) are parents to three children. Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) has a stake in the Deadwood Bank. Sol Star (John Hawkes) and Trixie (Paula Malcomson) remain very much together and E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) remains almost-mayor. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is still plugging holes left by the wayward bullet.
Meanwhile, a pair of colorful former residents have returned — Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who was last seen in these parts demanding Trixie's murder because she had attempted to kill him. He is now a junior U.S. senator from California and has business in town.
This movie — which closes out the classic series (2004-06) about a murderous saloonkeeper and the upright lawman, Seth Bullock, he eventually befriends — was written by David Milch, creator of the original.
MY SAY Hallelujah: "Deadwood" finally has closure.
It took 13 years to get here, but closure this is, while the true marvel of this movie is that it ever got made at all. Over these intervening years Milch has had setbacks, and recently confided that he is suffering from Alzheimer's. The cast long ago scattered to other projects. Fans have since found other obsessions. The world of TV has moved on (and how).
But there was always something about the abrupt dead-end of "Deadwood" that rankled, leaving Milch's artistic aims unfulfilled. (HBO never officially canceled the series, but simply refused to renew it.) Al was last seen on his hands and knees, scrubbing away the blood left from what may have been his most heinous murder. Hearst was off to the Anaconda mines in Montana, and from there, greater glory (entirely undeserved). Deadwood was left hanging on the cusp of the past and the future — a mud-spattered blur of violence, choked with swindlers, speculators, gunslingers and prostitutes. Without a proper end, was all this just commentary on American statehood and our own founding forged in blood? Or just another story of the frontier which (to paraphrase the famous Willa Cather line) goes on repeating itself as fiercely as if it never happened before?
Regrettably, perhaps inevitably, this wrap doesn't exactly offer coherent answers. That may be too much to ask of a two-hour movie, and besides, there's too much story to get through — not all of that always coherent either. For example, Hearst returns once more to Deadwood when the more prudent course of action would be to have steered a wide berth. That's not the only mistake he makes in service of closure. A kinder, gentler Al Swearengen also emerges over these two hours. That's out of character, too.
Instead of the grand unifying vision, Milch settles on pleasing the crowd and settling a score (guess which one). Some sentimentality was inevitable. Beloved characters, like Jane and Bullock, get exactly what you always hoped for them. Some others (no spoilers) do not. The best moments are those that bring a once-vivid personality fully back to life. Each of these actors step back into their roles as effortlessly as if they'd never left them. There's homage in these excellent performances, but especially love.
Best of all, Milch's unique language remains intact — a tangle of verbs, nouns and prepositions all twisted around each other into a braid of antiquated gentility that never betray their latent violence. As usual, Hearst gets some of the best of those words. And just when Al threatens to become irremediably softened — a New Age man for a New Age Deadwood — he gets the one line that proves otherwise. Fans have waited 13 years for this line. It's almost worth the wait.
BOTTOM LINE A sentimental close to this journey with excellent performances and — best of all — Milch's incomparable language.