Deadwood: The Movie ★★★★½

David Milch, while clearly one of the smartest people to ever dedicate himself primarily to television, is a man of bad habits and even worse luck. The septuagenarian showrunner, creator of the police procedural NYPD Blue and long-time screenwriter on NBC’s Hill Street Blues, has long enjoyed a secondary career as an inveterate gambler — though it has often seemed of primary interest to him. “Judging from the accounts of several men and women who know him well,” a profile in the Hollywood Reporter divulged several years ago, “he is a person of extreme talent but also extreme behaviour.” How extreme? Well, on the one hand, he made Deadwood, which has a strong claim on being the best show in the history of TV. On the other hand, he made $100 million, which he slowly and painfully squandered at the track. Milch is a genius. He is also a fiend. 

When the Hollywood Reporter checked in on Milch in 2016, things looked bleak: they found him $17 million in debt, shackled to a paralyzing IRS repayment plan, living on a $40 allowance doled out in cash each week by his wife, Rita, who was suing David’s managers for not telling her how deep he’d been in with the loan sharks. His last project, an esoteric drama about horse-racing he made with Michael Mann and Dustin Hoffman called Luck, was canceled by HBO before the end of its first season, after reports that horses kept dying on set. And though he managed to keep it private until recently, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a condition that’s made it extraordinarily difficult for him to work. “I intuit the presence of a coherence in my life,” he told the New Yorker this month, “which I haven’t given expression to in an honorable fashion.” 

Deadwood is widely considered Milch’s magnum opus. Alongside The Sopranos and The Wire — the two shows against which it routinely competes for the top spot on all-time best TV lists — Deadwood redefined what was possible on television, expanding the scope of the premium cable drama and establishing a new precedent for depth and seriousness on the small screen. Its first season was remarkable. Its second season was better, and its third better still. There was no forth. For the usual arcane reasons having to do with co-production agreements and contractual difficulties, HBO canceled the series, and canceled it so suddenly that it was never accorded a proper conclusion. The finale ended with a number of outstanding cliffhangers and an unresolved impasse between the heroes and villains. Consequently, more than almost any show of its stature and calibre, Deadwood always felt truncated — a masterpiece left lamentably incomplete.

Milch has been trying to complete it for practically as long as it’s been off the air. Since Deadwood’s third season drew to its unceremonious close, in the summer of 2006, rumours of its return have periodically circulated among producers, fans, and members of the cast, many of whom went on to successful careers as TV and movie stars but retained an abiding affection for Milch and the iconic western that helped make their names. When I interviewed the actress Kim Dickens, who played opium-addicted brothel-madam Joanie Stubbs, in 2015, she told me she’d return to Deadwood in a heartbeat, and expressed disbelief that it hadn’t come together already; her former cast members, she said, felt the same way. Still it seemed one of those dream sequels that would simply never materialize, despite universal enthusiasm. If it was ever going to happen, they would have to conquer Milch’s bad luck. 

And yet somehow it has happened. They conquered the curse — miraculously, mercifully. After 13 years, Deadwood: The Movie has at last arrived, and having endured wretched misfortune, at the far side of a decade of cataclysm and catastrophe, David Milch has narrowly succeeded in furnishing his opus with the ending it deserves — an ending as dense and as satisfying, as rich in rhetorical panache and imaginative violence, as any chapter of the series at its finest. You have to hand it to the guy. Undefeated by penury, undiminished by illness, he drew from some hidden reserve of latent creative energy and applied it to produce the apogee of his career. It’s really something. This brisk two-hour feature is the culmination not only of Deadwood’s three seasons and the years it languished in seemingly permanent hiatus, you feel watching. It’s the culmination of a lifetime of turbulent, star-crossed brilliance. 

The only thing comparable, in both the length of its absence and its quality when it finally reappeared, is Twin Peaks: The Return, which seemed unrepeatable, an expectation-defying fluke. One of the most striking things about the resurrection of that series, two dozen years later, was the uncanny sense that these characters and the small town they populate had been preserved, unchanging and eternal, as if immune to the ordinary passage of time. We find the town of Deadwood in a similar state of eerie immortality. Its familiar inhabitants, though certainly older, follow as ever their well-known routines; the sets, costumes, and sundry other production design elements have been recreated, with what must have been painstaking effort, in meticulous detail. You can tell the ensemble regards this as a homecoming. From the very first moments of the film, it’s plain that everyone, but Milch especially, is ecstatic to be back.

Of course, this wouldn’t count for much if Deadwood: The Movie didn’t feel, on a fundamental level, like Deadwood: The Show. You come to expect certain changes when a celebrated series makes the radical leap from television to cinema: bigger budget, heightened drama, more splash and dash. What’s surprising about the Deadwood movie is that it takes none of the usual liberties. Nothing has been enlarged, escalated, or intensified. The scale is modest, and the stakes (though robustly dramatic) are quite low. Nothing, in short, has been changed to accommodate the demands of a different medium: if you watch the season three finale and the movie back to back, the only differences immediately evident are the aspect ratio and the median age of the cast. A few wrinkles and a widescreen frame: these trifling modifications aside, Deadwood: The Movie, happily, is indistinguishable from the Deadwood we left behind in 2006. 

Intricacy is a hallmark of Milch’s style: he writes huge thickets of abstruse, quasimusical dialogue that characters spit and snarl with logorrheic verve. Impatient viewers, unable to understand a word of the prolix slang and anachronistic jargon being uttered, have been known to abandon Deadwood ruefully midway through the pilot episode — a problem I imagine even Milch would concede is his rather than theirs. Milch is not a complaisant writer, and Deadwood was not what you’d call an accessible show; the density and velocity of the language, if delightful, is decidedly hostile to the fickle mainstream. The Deadwood film is no less recondite, in more ways the one. Besides Milch’s unmistakable vernacular, it proceeds from the premise, not unreasonable, that anyone watching will not only have seen the series, but seen it recently enough to remember what happened, when, to whom, and on what account.

In this as in other respects it feels less like a standalone film than another season — a concise installment, roughly the length of two normal episodes, only with the clear and valuable aim of delivering a little much-sought closure. To that end we join once more the righteous, obdurate Seth Bullock, now a state’s marshall and salt-and-pepper-haired proprietor of the town inn; and his unrelenting rival turned reluctant ally Al Swearengen, still this small pond’s big fish, now vexed and enfeebled by failing kidneys and too much drink. More than a decade on, Bullock and Swearengen are right where we left them — the former striding through town with his head held high, trying to guard decency from corruption; the latter lording over town from his perch on a balcony, trying to preserve excitement amid widespread boredom. The tension between these men remains Deadwood’s animating force.

As the series began, Bullock and Swearengen squared off on simple terms: order versus chaos, justice versus injustice. Deadwood was a frontier town in a gold rush, and over the course of the first season we saw how it might be given over to one or the other’s vision of a society governed by either fairness or gain. But as the show continued, and as history carried abreast, Bullock and Swearengen found themselves begrudgingly united against a common enemy, one that couldn’t be beaten up or shot at or underhandedly stabbed — America, or perhaps simply Progress, represented by the forces of government that started to sedate and regulate the lawless town. By far the most menacing agent of this interference was George Hearst, played by the kindly looking Gerald McRaney. And Hearst, with his bureaucratic cunning and ruthless hunger, returns as the imposing, loathsome villain of the film. 

By 1889, the year in which Deadwood: The Movie is set, Hearst had become a United States Senator. It’s in this capacity, hugely influential and prodigiously wealthy, that he is reintroduced to us in the opening scenes, reciting a perfunctory speech to the people of Deadwood to commemorate the induction of South Dakota into the Union. Our heroes, assembled for the occasion, regard Hearst with silent contempt. But not wishing to provoke his ire unnecessarily, they let him get on with it undisturbed — until the incorrigible Trixie, retired prostitute and would-be assassin who once bequeathed Hearst a bullet to the shoulder, lets loose a tirade of calumny that makes the resentful politician realize he’d been duped 13 years before. You may recall, in the finale, that Swearengen and Bullock persuaded Hearst that they’d killed Trixie in restitution for her attempt on his life. He now sees that wasn’t true. 

He wants vengeance. It is typical of Milch’s head for drama that Hearst’s revenge takes the form of savvy political maneuvering, but that one of these maneuvers results in the death of a beloved and largely uninvolved character. A funeral provides a welcome opportunity for Milch and the director, series regular Daniel Minahan, to gather friendly faces and delight in their company; a wedding later in the film dispenses more of the same. Meanwhile, of course, there are all the voluble monologues, charged confrontations, and mud-caked street thrashings one expects of an hour or two in Deadwood. Bullock broods virtuously; Swearengen boozes, curses, and gets up to no good. “My job ain’t to follow the law,” Bullock explains to Al at one point. “It’s to interpret it, and to enforce that interpretation.” It is one of the supreme pleasures of the movie simply to hear people talk like this again. 

Hearst was always a figurehead of civilization in Deadwood, and civilization, as Milch imagined it, had the terrifying power to stamp a flame like Deadwood out. Milch uses the passage of time to show how far along the cause of Hearst and the interests he represents have come in the interceding years. Though Deadwood feels the same as ever, things in Deadwood are being forcefully modernized: laws ratified, telephone poles erected. (E.B. Farnum, the show’s go-to figure of comic relief, has a scene here with a newly installed phone that is the funniest moment in the movie.) The drama of Deadwood: The Movie is the conflict between Bullock, Swearengen, and the rest of the town on the one hand and Hearst, embodiment of progress, on the other. Their simple battle stands in for others: freedom versus domination, the past versus the future, the people versus the powers that be. 

Milch is too smart to get too fancy about this. The story he intends to tell is modest in ambition; he doesn’t allow airs of grandeur to complicate things. When Milch originally approached HBO with an idea for a series, it wasn’t a western, but a show about law enforcement under Nero in Ancient Rome. “I was interested in how people improvised the structures of a society when there was no law to guide them,” he explained to the New Yorker in 2005. “How the law developed out of the social impulse to minimize the collateral damage of taking revenge.” If you had to describe the theme of Deadwood in two lines, those would be them. Deadwood is still, at base, about how some sense of order slowly, sometimes gracelessly, emerges amid disorder. In articulating this idea Milch transformed television — and now, 13 years later, made a great film.