Film Review – Deadwood: The Movie (2019)

by Chris van Dijk

Every fanatic of cinematic entertainment dreams of that one impossible movie. I have more than a couple, but the one thing I really wanted to see was a return of Deadwood, HBO’s gloriously foulmouthed show. It was a dream of mine, but as time went on, I made peace with the last episode of season 3, which for thirteen years became the ending of the Deadwood saga.

Yet, truth be told, it wasn’t satisfactory. Not by a long shot.

Rumors were aplenty surrounding the Deadwood movie. First, it was two movies. Then it was one. A script was written, and then rewritten. The producers were trying to assemble its awesome pieces but guarantees could not be made. The performers of the Deadwood saga are workers. They can’t sit around and wait for HBO to give the go-ahead. People gotta eat, people gotta sustain a way of living. The chance for a Deadwood resurrection was small, so small. Too much time had passed. Sometimes, it felt like us fans were merely fooling ourselves.

And then it happened, HBO officially greenlit a Deadwood movie. After thirteen years, we would finally be reunited with those lovable degenerates, in that place filled with an endless supply of whiskey and where pigs dine on human flesh, where the most beautiful and filthy words are spoken back to back.

You grow attached to these fictitious people, seeing them struggle in their private moments. Sometimes they begin to feel like family. Eventually, as it goes in life, we must say goodbye to them. It’s a painful fact of life.

But we don’t always get to say goodbye to them. Sometimes death is sudden and you just never had the chance to say your piece. So was the Deadwood cancellation to me. Yet thanks to the Deadwood: The Movie, I can finally say goodbye.

We don’t get always get to say goodbye, so when we can, we must treasure it.

The following review will be spoiler free.


Directed By: Daniel Minahan

Written By: David Milch

Starring: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Robin Weigert, Paula Malcomson, Gerald McRaney, Dayton Callie, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Molly Parker, Kim Dickens, Geri Jewell, Keone Young, Anna Gunn, Franklin Ajaye, Sean Bridgers, William Sanderson, W. Earl Brown, Lily Keene, Brent Sexton, Jade Pettyjohn, Peter Jason, Jeffrey Jones with Cleo King and Leon Rippy as Tom Nuttal

The film takes place ten years after the third season of the infamous Deadwood show, in 1889. As South Dakota ventures into statehood, so does the Deadwood camp venture into civilization. When the prospect of gold was discovered in the Deadwood land, a colorful assemblage of frontiersmen had entered its savage plain, hoping to prosper from the entrepreneurial benefits. Its lack of governmental oversight led to a high crime-rate, to sex-trafficking, gambling, the exploitation of workers and the occasionally convenient murder. The pursuit of gold is rife with gore.

The great leap toward statehood does not necessarily equate peace and prosperity, as the film will show. The homicidal prospector George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who terrorized the town of Deadwood a decade ago, has now become a U.S. Senator and has returned to Deadwood to commiserate its newly gained “progress”.

The arrival of this miserable human being opens up many painful feelings of the numerous foulmouthed and shockingly sophisticated residents of Deadwood. One being former prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who is currently pregnant with Sol Star’s child (John Hawkes). Trixie still suffers survivor’s guilt as her impulsive assassination attempt of Hearst led to the death of an innocent prostitute.

Hearst’s pursuit of gold has now been replaced with the doctrine of modernity, as he builds telephone poles all over the settlement. Complicating matters is Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) who declines Hearst’ generous offer.


Meanwhile, the town sees the return of Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), who returns to Deadwood to reclaim the affections of brother owner Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens).

Also returning is the widow Ellsworth (Molly Parker) and her adopted daughter Sophia (Lily Keene). The arrival of the widow opens up the many unrequited romantic feelings she shared with the town sheriff, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant).

As this is happening, the beloved brother owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is looking worse for wear. The town physician Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) expects his years of alcohol abuse is taking its toll. The many people that love him are starting to worry about him, such as his loyal henchmen, Johnny (Sean Bridgers) and Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), his cook and cleaner, Jewel (Geri Jewell), and the unofficial leader of the town’s celestial population, Mr. Wu (Keone Young).

But as Al warns Bullock, it won’t be long before Heart shows the rigors of his putrid heart. And it soon becomes time for the town of Deadwood to come together in order to combat this parasitic figure of the American Experiment.

David Milch and Al Swearengen

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A sick but dapperly dressed Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Image via Den of Geek

One of the most interesting extras in the Deadwood DVD boxset was a fascinating short called “The Meaning of Endings.” In it, David Milch goes on a long diatribe about the sudden conclusion of the Deadwood show. Striding mournfully on set, still seething about the sudden turn of events, he tries to justify the unsatisfactory finale of the Deadwood show. He tries to exclaim something meaningful in how things slip away from us, exclaiming that “the biggest lie is that we’re entitled to a meaningful conclusion of something that never concludes.”

But after these many years, we finally got a wonderful conclusion. But why did such a critically acclaimed show get canceled in the first place? The reasons are varied — the show was certainly a costly endeavor — but Milch is certainly not blameless.

Anyone slightly familiar with Milch knows about his eccentricities and gambling demons. The quality of his penmanship requires that his mind needs to be let loose, to be uncontrolled in the vigorous flow of life.

As cast and crew would note, he would be inspired by things that happened around them; if Milch would bump his head, he would suddenly put that in one of the scripts. An innocuous comment could inspire a Shakespearean soliloquy. A creative spirit like him needs to roam free.

There were other projects he wanted to produce and write, such as the wacky surf-noir John from Cincinnati or horse-gambling drama Luck. Both ended with just one season, and though they both have that Milchian touch — especially Luck, which I would have loved another season of — none could reach the literary heights of Deadwood.

Ultimately, such a creative mind cannot be tempered, and it can easily get distracted with other creative ambitions. And sadly, such a unique mind is not invincible of the cruelty of age: Milch is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Due to his debilitating illness, it’s likely that the Deadwood motion picture will be his final legacy. Therefore, one cannot help but link Milch’s own mental decline to that of the character of Al Swearengen, who in the movie is suffering from a possible fatal disease affecting his liver — unsurprisingly considering his daily intake of whiskey.

If you were hoping to see Al Swearengen cut throats in this movie, you will be disappointed. Swearengen spends all his time in the Gem Saloon, conversing with the rest of the ensemble cast while musing about his own mortality.

The declining health of Al, his ruminations about his finite existence, represents Milch’s own awareness of his mental decline. All of this makes the film ever more emotionally prescient.

The Ending We’ve Waited For

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Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) and Johnny (Sean Bridgers) tending bar and worrying about Al’s health. Image via News – The AV Club

Giving a proper ending to a large ensemble series drama series thirteen years after the last season is no easy feat, especially if you have less than two hours to do it. Nevertheless, the years that Milch spent on this screenplay paid off. This ending feels more satisfactory than most long-running shows — I don’t need to mention Game of Thrones here, do I?

Naturally, the action is abbreviated. The film packs enough action for a whole season, but that’s understandable.

Many of these beloved characters, unfortunately, don’t get much screentime. Some merely pass by or can be seen in the background. But they are still there. They went on with their lives even if we couldn’t see them.

Most of them haven’t changed much, they’ve only gotten older.  Time has corrupted some, such as the villainous George Hearst who seems to have lost all semblance of humanity, which we had fleeting glimpses of in season three. He’s the embodiment of the lassez-faire capitalism that would eventually swallow America whole.

Yet the true aficionado of the show will recognize the little touches: peaches, Merrick’s incessant need to document history through photography, Trixie’s temper tantrums to Charlie Utter’s everlasting chivalry. I’m sure fans will spot many more poignant winks and nods.

Even with its limited running time, it’s still a consistent treat for the fans.

What Could Have Been and What We Have

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Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) reminiscing about the past. Image via Bustle

One cannot help but ponder what could have been, what season 4 would have been about. The moments between these characters were robbed from; their hilarious banter, their rivalries, and blooming kinship. The character arcs that are forever lost in time — or in the current fragile mind of David Milch.

The show would definitely have ended differently. We would have seen Cy Tolliver (the late great Powers Booth) plummeting toward his inevitable damnation. The further escapades of Jack Langrish (Brian Cox) and his theatrical troupe. The fire that would burn down Deadwood. All that reprobates we fell in love with, from Mose Manuel (Pruitt Taylor Vince), Blazanov (Pasha D. Lychikoff) and probably the kindest resident of Deadwood, Richardson (the late great Ralph Richeson).

Even now, as we see only glimpses of these great characters, we wonder what we could have seen had we been granted more time with them. How did Con Stapleton (Peter Jason) find God? Was it after discovering the gory remains of his drug-addled friend Leon? How did Aunt Lou (Cleo King) feel knowing that George Hearst, the potential murderer of her son, was back in town? How did Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) combat Hearst’ brand of yellow journalism?

We can ruminate about the things that will never be, but it’s a miracle, that after more than a decade, we actually received a continuation to Deadwood. A revival doesn’t always bode well. For every Twin Peaks: The Return, there is another painful X-Files season. The Deadwood show retains its glory, even with this belated revival.

Similar to the characters in the film, there’s a lot of regrets, yet, there’s also the poignant appreciation of the moment. It’s an appreciation for those you love, those that are still there beside you. It’s all about being with the people that matter and enjoying the last remnants of the time we have on this earthly plain.

Final Thoughts

My affection for this movie cannot be understated. My great anticipation for this could have easily led to severe disappointment but it’s everything I could have hoped for. It’s hard to imagine any true fan of Deadwood not feeling joyous seeing these characters on screen again, exclaiming their colorful vernacular.

The final scene of the film will also tug at the heartstrings of any true fan — which also includes one of the greatest last lines ever spoken in a film. A line that perfectly encapsulates the intimate but rugged spirit of the Deadwood show.

There are minor gripes. The opening locomotion CGI is dreadful. The flashbacks to earlier seasons don’t really feel necessary. It might have been put in there to familiarize those who haven’t seen the show but I can’t see this film making much of an impact to those who aren’t attached to these characters.

I, however, couldn’t care less. The moment the film opens — with Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) going on a loving drunken rant about her pursuing her great love, Joanie (Kim Dickens) — I knew I was watching the continuation (and bittersweet end) of the Deadwood show I fell in love with.

Sure it was too short, and I really wanted more — rumors are that there are 30 minutes of deleted scenes — but we must appreciate what we got; it’s a miracle it happened in the first place.

It’s a beautiful ending to one of the greatest shows ever made.

Grade: A+

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Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Swearengen discussing important matters. Image via Hollywood Reporter

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Vuava June 12, 2019 - 8:21 pm

Looking forward to seeing this.

Nick Kush June 9, 2019 - 7:51 pm

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