Before I get into my review of the Deadwood movie, I have a confession to make: I like how the show ended. In fact, it is perfect. Deadwood is a show about carving a society out of the wilderness but at the same time attempting to stave off civilization. Robert E. Howard was wrong: civilization always wins. The show ends perfectly because it ends when free Deadwood ends. Time marches on, but the thing about the town that made it such a fascinating subject for a show no longer exists.
My thoughts are also colored by my view of season 3 more broadly. Deadwood started with the brilliance and heat of a raging wildfire. By season 3 it only smoldered. Elements outwore their welcome for me. The respective storylines for Calamity Jane, Cy Tolliver, and Steve the Drunk each consisted almost shouting epithets.
So how does the movie measure up? It does finally give Calamity Jane, criminal underused by the show, something to do. People die. A large chunk of the movie is extraordinarily tense storytelling. Its suffers, though, from the usual problems of reunion shows and it undercuts the show ending, all while providing no real closure.
The movie opens with a callback to the TV series. Calamity Jane is once again returning to Deadwood. But where the road to Deadwood was once backed up with dozens of wagons, Jane and her mule are now the only traffic. Most people now arrive in Deadwood by train. Deadwood is even getting telephone wires. Civilization marches on.
The most striking thing about the movie, at least at first, is how old everybody looks. The movie sharply departs from the Hollywood rule that actors are not allowed to age. After the movie finished, Hulu started autoplaying the show, only underscoring how old everyone looks in the movie. It is too striking—almost excessive, even considering the vagaries of age on the frontier—to not be the product of a conscious decision. David Milch wrote the movie as Alzheimer’s robs him of his brilliance and of his identity. It is hard to think that didn’t have an influence.
Less welcome is how fanservice-y the movie is early, as it gets bogged down by callbacks and flashbacks that are probably unnecessary. I haven’t rewatched the show lately, but I have seen it three times. I have a pretty good handle on what happened. And the difference between a two hour movie and a TV show means that several characters inevitably have nothing to do and no reason to be there beyond their past on the show. But much of the impetus for the movie was always “I want to see these actors together again.”
The conflict of the story is precipitated by two events, both directly involving now-Senator George Hearst, the villain from the third season who has returned to Deadwood. The first is entirely within character. It also doesn’t undercut the show finale so much as take a blackjack to the back of the head of it. The second is a murder.
Things pick up after Bullock responds to that murder by burning a load of Hearst’s telephone poles. Going straight at a thing comes in handy for pacing.
After a slow start, the movie hurtles toward its conclusion once things get kicking. It was tense, on-the-edge-of-your-seat storytelling as much the second time I watched it as it was the first. We know the shootouts are coming. When they do we are well satisfied.
So it is tense, but then that tension isn’t entirely satisfied. The movie lacks real closure just as much as the show did. And the show was a better ending, although perhaps this one is happier (or at least a little more sweet with the bitter).
Tim Olyphant and Gerald McRaney carry the movie, all steely reserve and violence brimming under the surface on one side and arrogance, thinly-veiled contempt, and despotism on the other, with most of the rest of the cast displaying none of the magic they may have in the early days of the show.
Part of this is because the famed Shakespearean language strikes a discordant tone here. Before it added a flourish to a vulgar vernacular. Now every line is stilted, leaving a tortured process for actor to speak and viewer to parse. It is less Shakespearean than self-serious Yoda-speak. Given Milch’s health problems, I have to wonder whether much of the dialogue was written by other, lesser writers attempting to mimic his writing.
The bottom line? If all you really wanted was to see the actors on the set again, then that you will get. If all you really wanted was some cap on the series, any cap, after what you felt was an unjustified early cancellation, then that you will get, although I doubt it will really leave you satisfied. If you are like me in being one of the rare fans who loved the show ending, then you will find the movie detracts from it. If you are starved for quality neo-Western storytelling, then that you will get. But then why not just rewatch the original? Hulu started auto-playing the show pilot after I finished the movie. The movie suffered considerably in comparison. I can’t imagine the movie will bring in too many new fans. Better to show the uninitiated the first two episodes. If that doesn’t hook them, the movie certainly won’t.
3 of 5 Stars