Swearengen: New baby in the camp?
Trixie: Lovely baby boy.
Swearengen: As he would be, coming from his mother.
What is the future? Is it smoke and thunder roaring through a tunnel in the mountain? Is it new wrinkles furrowing familiar faces? Is it telephone poles? Children? Open road ahead and old mistakes behind? Or maybe mining magnate turned California senator George Hearst has it right, and the future is just rude matter, lucre to be inherited or stolen by the mighty from their equally rotten forebears. Whatever the truth of it, the future’s what the men and women of Deadwood face as the year 1889 brings South Dakota into statehood and the once-lawless mining camp into the fold of the United States.
Deadwood: The Movie is more than likely the last film that David Milch will ever write. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015, the famously erratic and temperamental writer has largely retired from public life. His participation in the movie’s filming was subdued and occasional, a far cry from the flurries of last-minute rewrites for which he’s been known since his days on NYPD Blue. The movie, fittingly, is quieter than the show, its story smaller, its action driven less by knife fights and explosive, profanity-laced monologues than by people remembering their pasts and dwelling on the ways in which their memories fail to fit together with the present.
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Ever Think of Not Going Straight at a Thing?
Deadwood’s meandering just-under-two-hour runtime is packed with Shakespearean shamelessness and pathos. Jane Canary’s opening monologue about coming back to town one last time to sweep her sweetheart off her feet is interspersed with mule farts and a digression about a painful blister on the left cheek of our heroine’s ass. Indignity, from Jane’s blistered rear to Al’s rapidly progressing cirrhosis of the liver, is as much a constant background player here as it was on the show’s original run. If the town’s conflict with its old nemesis Hearst drives the plot, the meat of the story is people figuring out what they mean to one another and how to cope with a world which has no pity for their frailty.
It’s bittersweet, seeing the happiness and failure Deadwood’s citizens have found in the ten years since we left them. Bullock’s quietly passionate family life and the unspoken love still burning between himself and Alma Ellsworth, Swearengen’s losing battle with his lifelong alcoholism, Charlie Utter’s contemplation of the creek running through his small patch of contested land; these small stories come together not so much to form a greater whole as to illustrate life’s incompleteness, its inconsistencies and oddities. The camera takes a similar approach, veteran director Daniel Minahan breaking the town and its surroundings into a mosaic of images familiar and new.
In one shot the camera arcs up over the back of George Hearst’s balding head as he strides toward the rail of his hotel balcony, casting him as a sort of faceless knob of flesh and slicked-back hair while the packed earth of the thoroughfare and the dwarfed men standing in it slide slowly into focus. In another we glide through a sunlit forest, the pale morning light flashing through the branches, overexposed to the point that it softens and blurs the trees and obscures the sky. In the familiar cluttered rooms of Swearengen’s Gem Saloon and Tom Nuttall’s Number Ten you can almost see the past bleeding away like smoke from the present’s clean, hard skin, while in the new brick facade of E. B. Farnum’s hotel lives a world where that muddy, dimly-lit time is already history.
God’s witnesses, Samuel Fields says on his deathbed where he lies bleeding into his own stomach and gripping a shaken, weeping Seth Bullock’s hand, are those you’d least expect. They’re men like Charlie Utter, cantankerous and unkempt, singing as he wanders drunk along the creek he knows he’ll die for. They’re women like Trixie, who on her wedding night deals a young prospective prostitute a vicious verbal backhand out of compassion so furiously expressed that it drains all trace of sappiness from the exchange. That together these broken people forged a community out of violence and stupidity was the heart of the original series, and unsteadily, not without fits and starts, it beats on to the end.
There is grace in the small dramas of Milch’s swan song, and the slowest and most bittersweet is the end of Al Swearengen’s life. Pimp, wit, batterer, highwayman and bad-temperedly generous pillar of the community, Al was the show’s storm center for its entire three-season run. At the movie’s start he’s sweating and waxy-skinned, his fireplug vitality replaced by loose skin, wasted hands, and cloudy eyes. There’s still fire in him, still a dose of the same plain meanness and opportunism that made him such an integral part of the town’s founding and success, but you can see the taper guttering with every step he takes.
The Face of the Future
There’s no blaze of glory for Al, no suicidal knifing of Hearst or thundering verbal showdown, but the way McShane plays him you can see Swearengen thinking it over. The tragedy of watching this once-powerful man hide from his own weakness until he’s wetting the bed and forgetting the days of the week can’t help but bring Milch’s own decline to mind. How do you confront the future when you can’t remember your own past? How do you go down fighting when you know you’ll never have your strength again? How do you reconcile the ruthless sharpness of your errant thoughts with the haze of your unraveling identity?
“All the rest is gravy,” Al quips when Trixie, once his whore and his lover, thanks him earnestly for showing up to walk her down the aisle at her wedding to Sol Star. It sounds offhanded, but Al’s meaning is clear. He’s done all he wanted to do. Whatever’s left in the scant few hours before he’s bedridden and wheezing with Trixie at his side and Jewell rubbing his feet and singing “Waltzing Matilda” in her beautiful, broken voice, it’s over and above what he expected life to give him.
Maybe that’s all we can do in the face of the future, which is all uncertainty except for death’s raw shadow standing in the door. Maybe telephone poles and trains and laws and every other thing have fuck-all to do with how we face what’s coming. Maybe the best we can hope for is to be like Al and Trixie, holding hands against the terrible not-knowing, clinging all at once to their love and their hurt because the two things are past separation, knowing that their moment can’t last the night, might not last the hour, and squeezing all the harder for it.