Created by: David Milch || Written by: David Milch, Regina Corrado, Ted Mann, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Jody Worth, Bryan McDonald, Malcolm MacRury
Directed by: Ed Bianchi, Daniel Minahan, Davis Guggenheim, Gregg Feinberg, Mark Tinker, Steve Shill, Alan Taylor || Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Paula Malcolmson, Leon Rippy, William Sanderson, Robin Weigert, W. Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, Keith Carradine, Powers Booth, Kim Dickens, Anna Gunn, Jeffrey Jones, Sean Bridgers, Garret Dillahunt, Keith Carradine
No. of Seasons: 3 || No. of Episodes: 36 + 110-minute feature
I’ve previously written about the Western’s enduring cinematographic, thematic, and cultural legacy despite the declining production and popularity of true Western films. Along with the (non-Indian) film musical, the Western is perhaps the most influential genre in modern cinema that is also near extinct. Both classical and revisionist attempts of this type of period drama have been endangered species at the international box office since at least the 1980s, and as mainstream projects are concerned, near irrelevant in the contemporary zeitgeist.
Two exceptions to this modern dearth of noteworthy Western cinema are Andrew Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which I’ve discussed at length before, and David Milch’s acclaimed HBO series, Deadwood. The latter premiered in the new millennium heyday of the HBO network, alongside the respected Sopranos (1999-2007) and The Wire (2002). These series all dissected American cultural identity and evolution at length, but Deadwood used the most classical of period drama settings to analyze its parent nation’s contemporary mindset, whereas The Sopranos and The Wire examined their respective subcultures in the moment. Like its HBO brethren, however, Deadwood merged crime drama and melodramatic elements to sell its otherwise slow-burn, introspective subject-matter so rich and dark as to be impossible to portray in one or several feature-length movies.
Deadwood was abruptly cancelled after just three seasons in 2006, leaving several major plot threads and a plethora of subplots hanging to its overarching narrative’s severe detriment. In one of the most unexpected and satisfying turnarounds in modern television, though, 74 year-old creator David Milch battled through Alzheimer’s disease to write a feature-length finale and organize the entire series’ main cast to end their story on the right, dare I say, perfect note. Deadwood, “The Movie” is so strong in both its narrative conclusion to its long-format television predecessor as well as its rich, visual execution that it does the reverse of most high-profile television finales: It paints the entire series in a better light, often against one’s better objective judgement.
As great as Deadwood’s finale is as a work of cinema and real-world inspirational tale, it is best understood in context with its parent television series, which remains one of the few noteworthy Westerns from the 2000s-2010s. To say that parent series is not as smooth as its feature-length conclusion would be stating the obvious; aside from those aforementioned plot casualties resulting from the series’ premature cancellation, aspects of the show’s dialogue, use of recurring castmembers, and casual depiction of 19th century prostitution are problematic. These minor yet significant problems are juxtaposed against the series’ brilliant main cast, strong thematic undertones, reference-level use of both natural and artificial lighting, and effective genre-blending cinematic violence.
Deadwood’s starring cast is legendary, none more so than Ian McShane’s surly, crude saloon keeper and pimp, Al Swearengen. McShane has had a long and storied career, but the role for which he shall be most remembered in this generation is his anti-hero work in this series, particularly as a foil for the amusing straight-man Timothy Olyphant, the likable Molly Parker, the angst-ridden Paula Malcolmson, the relatable Jeffrey Jones, the endearing Dayton Callie, and last but not least, the eccentric and lovable Robin Weigert. His face-off against the show’s primary villain, the sociopolitical apex predator, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), is just icing on the cake. All these characters are charismatic in their own, identifiable way, their distinctness without cartoonish exaggeration being a major strength of Milch’s writing as well as the cast’s acting talents.
Just as identifiable as Deadwood’s memorable cast is its dept use of lighting throughout both the principal series and feature-length finale. I feel this is an instinctually recognized yet unsung directorial strength of the series, for some reason. Whether in low-key setups or high, daytime scenes or night, sets and characters illuminated by torches, lamps, or sunlight are as visible as they need to be at all times. This show’s remarkable consistency and clarity with respect to lighting its damned action are critical to the show’s diegetic appeal, its dramatic immersion. The only comparable lighting scheme — a basic, critical component of cinematography — is Alejandro Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki’s The Revenant (2015), also a modern Western, as fate would have it. Deadwood’s near unparalleled use of well lit Western imagery empowers its few instances of extreme on-screen violence or the threat of such (e.g. McShane’s vicious knife-work, Parker staring down a lustful McRaney), which blend crime drama staging and Western aesthetics with ease.
As per the series’ limited but recognizable weaknesses beyond its truncated subplots (e.g. Omar Gooding’s nonsensical Liberian gold, the Wyatt Earp non-saga, the misguided Deadwood theatre troupe, various pointless minor supporting characters in Seasons 2 and 3), Deadwood’s portrayal of 19th century frontier dialects and prostitution are inconsistent. I don’t have a problem with historical accuracy or dialectic political statements in film so long as they serve a greater visual style or story, but the show’s prolific use of profanity (e.g. “fuck/fucking/fucker” and “cocksucker,” specifically) is extensive to the point of being distracting as well as entertaining. The same can be said of Deadwood’s endless sex jokes and crude depictions of prostitution — two of the series’ principal locations are brothels, after all — but without the profanity’s entertainment value. Much like Game of Thrones‘ (2011-2019) controversial portrayal of nudity and sexual violence, Deadwood’s fornication grows so desensitizing it made me realize gratuitous sexuality may be HBO’s most tiresome cliche.
With all that in mind, Deadwood remains an easily recommendable Western series that stands the test of time, along with new millennium HBO greats such as The Wire and The Sopranos. That Deadwood may be the last great Western television series or feature-film for some time only adds to its endearing, satisfying finale. Both on-screen and off, the execution of this franchise captures the historical and contemporary frontier mindset of these United States of America as only the Western can, drawing order from chaos in an emotional, bittersweet, and dramatic fashion. Get your guns up and dive right in, you motherfucking cocksuckers.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: David Milch’s Deadwood is neither classical in its romanticism of the American West nor revisionist with respect to modern cynicism, but rather brutally honest in its depiction of a well lit, well acted, and well written story of an evolving frontier settlement. It hits just enough cinematic beats to become the Western story modern America deserves.
— However… some of the fucking cunt-licking dialogue becomes grating after a while, as do the gratuitous cock-sucking brothel antics. Deadwood, The Movie’s triumphant rise from the series’ ashes is made possible in part by numerous wasted plot threads from the show’s final season.
—> This gunslinger comes RECOMMENDED.