“Tell Al we will issue word from this fucking quarter when we are able,” an exasperated Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) says to Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown). It could well have been Deadwood creator David Milch responding to fans clamoring for a more complete ending to his HBO western, which closed its third season on uncertain ground. And lo, it has arrived. Deadwood: The Movie comes 13 years after the official close of the series, and almost feels like a murderous, profanity-laden UK Christmas Special in how it unites the characters together for a short narrative that delivers the emotional goods. That’s not to say that the Deadwood movie is by any means sentimental or saccharine — that wouldn’t ever be the show’s way — but there is something cozy and familiar about seeing all of these friends brought together once again to face down the town’s nastiest foe.
The movie, directed by series veteran Dan Minahan, picks up in 1889, where a celebration of South Dakota’s statehood acts as the impetus for far-flung characters to come together again. It’s an auspicious start, one that turns dark when a heartbreaking loss kicks the movie into a new gear. Only vagueness will do, because in its limited movie-length runtime, Deadwood provides a host of surprises, cameos, and eulogies that are best experienced unspoiled. It presumes a familiarity from its audience, but if you haven’t had time for a rewatch of the series, brief flashbacks remind viewers of the most pertinent plot points from the past that bear relevance to current reconnections.
Though the arrival of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) to the town of Deadwood is full of dark portends, Deadwood: The Movie uses him primarily as a catalyst to unite everyone — Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), and more — in common purpose. Hearst, the biggest cocksucker in the series (“I take that as a slur meant to incite me, but I will not be provoked,” as he says) is still a wretch, but this isn’t his story. He’s bringing modernity and telephone lines to Deadwood via his own violent, megalomanic brand of progress, but Deadwood’s rogue nature is not easily tamed.
Deadwood: The Movie has the Herculean task of reintroducing us to so many familiar characters without boiling things down to a parade of cameos or having the feeling of a clip show. It does take the movie a little while to settle into its Shakespeare-in-the-Mud cadence, and even still, not all of the actors make the speech flow as easily as they once did (although when it all comes together it’s outstanding; there are few things are bizarrely delightful as Trixie describing herself as “a whore of my vintage”). There’s also a strange sense of the world being out of time, as if things have more or less stood still in these ten intervening years, and yet, that doesn’t feel of great importance. The characters are where we left them, and the movie’s primary purpose, it seems clear, is to wrap things up more than it was able to do at the close of Season 3. In that it succeeds.
If there is a major complaint to be had, though, it’s in how many tantalizing hints of additional story there are in Milch’s script. There is a sense of finality in some ways, and in others, a deep desire to see the story explored further through a full season. As such, there are parts of the movie that feel hinted at but largely incomplete, even though there are satisfying micro-arcs and two major resolutions that feel like a proper farewell. Ultimately, the Deadwood movie’s structure mirrors the events of its own story: it’s a celebration, a coming together of old friends, a facing down of the past and personal demons, and an acceptance of a new way forward. The denizens of Deadwood live on, even though their story ends here for us.
Deadwood: The Movie premieres Friday, May 31st on HBO.