George W. Bush was still President when Deadwood, HBO’s sprawling Western series about the depraved, angry, loquacious residents of a South Dakota town, last aired. David Milch’s series never got the same attention as The Wire, The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under. Its small fan base was nonetheless devoted because Milch and his singular cast created a unique sense of place that has never been quite replicated.
That sense of sprawl is missing in Deadwood: The Movie, a fitting conclusion to the series that still feels rushed. At just under two hours, Milch and director Daniel Minahan have a lot to accomplish. You can see how this material could stretch to an entire season, but given the show’s inherent challenges and Milch’s declining health, the film’s rushed story is not a disappointment. It is the mark of a writer who knows his swansong is all that is left.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you’re reading, you’ve already watched all of Deadwood. Otherwise, this film is going to be awfully confusing and none of the callbacks will make a lick of sense. Now that we’re done that bit of housekeeping, it’s been ten years since the events of season three. Al Swearengin (Ian McShane) still runs The Gem, while Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is still the sheriff. The arrival of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a US Senator, is what drives the plot. He seeks to purchase nearby land so he can expand his phone line, and since he is also a ruthless sonofabitch, no one in Deadwood is too keen to see him.
Milch’s dialogue can be esoteric and bizarre, so Shakespeare is the best frame of reference to make sense of what his characters are saying. They speak laterally, deploying metaphor and profanity to hide their true feelings. Deadwood uses language to welcome audiences back into its world – it’s been too long since “cocksucker” has been used so deliciously – and to demonstrate how much (or how little) has really changed. There is a scene where Al observes the telephone line from his perch, remarking how technology can invade one’s privacy. E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) may be the new mayor, but he still commands as little respect as he always has.
The mood and sound of the show is like hearing your favorite old album: welcoming and a little unfamiliar. Milch is also famous for rewriting dialogue on the spot, but the nature of a feature film does not offer that freedom. Absent that freewheeling style, there is none of the show’s bizarre spontaneity, but that also helps the movie narrow its moral focus.
The most significant character in Deadwood is Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Al’s former sex worker who is now engaged to Sol Star (John Hawkes). She attempted to murder Hearst, and her loathing for him is still as raw as ever. The tension of the film is whether Hearst will get what he wants, and yet Milch approaches this material with a strange kind of sentimentality. He devotes a lot of screen time to couples, whether it’s Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), or the long-lost love between Bullock and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker). If this seems like fan service, then that is because real life sometimes has a fan service quality to it. When you see your friends from long ago, you cannot help play the greatest hits from your past.
Deadwood unfolds over the course of a couple days, and that is what creates the feeling of foregone conclusions. There is too much coincidence for such a short narrative, so Milch and company count on us forgiving the limited timeframe. The good news is that all the actors easily reprise their roles, finding notes of grace and savagery while recreating a stylized, ultimately hopeful view of how individuality can clash with civilization. Minahan takes an understated approach, focusing mostly on performance and moody cinematography, so the action unfolds with unobtrusive pacing you might expect from a play. Not every Deadwood resident survives the film, but they all get a sendoff that many beloved characters deserve and few ever really receive.