"There’s a particularly tragic tinge to the circumstances of the movie," says David Sims, pointing to David Milch's Alzheimer's revelation. It makes "the entire affair feel particularly elegiac," he says. "Even so, this script is among the greatest things he’s ever produced." Sims adds: "The real joy of Deadwood: The Movie is watching great actors such as (Robin) Weigert, (Timothy) Olyphant, (Ian) McShane, and so many more sink their teeth into these evocative characters one last time. Milch gives every character a chance to shine without structuring the story in a way that feels like a greatest-hits anthology. That connectedness is something Deadwood benefits from—almost all the action is set on a single thoroughfare, where all 30 members of the ensemble can crane their necks down from their balconies or out their windows to take in whatever action might be unfolding. Deadwood has always been a show about the ecosystem of a frontier society and the way it reflects the brutal but unique hodgepodge that is this country. By giving everyone involved one last moment in the limelight, the movie version encapsulates that concept perfectly."
There is something dreamlike and otherworldly about seeing Deadwood return: "This briefly resurrected wonder ... looks like Deadwood, if grayer and touched by time," says James Poniewozik. "It sounds like Deadwood, the profane poetry and syntactic baroqueness of David Milch’s prose preserved as if in 100-proof whiskey...Lord, it is Deadwood; not just a nostalgic exercise but a fair shorthand of what might have transpired in a fourth season. It can’t, in its abbreviated run, recreate the series’s full glory, but it does offer that glory a wistful toast. It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s wholly welcome. The dream stands before you, gutter-splashed and expletive-deleted lovely."
Deadwood: The Movie gives the HBO series yet another abrupt conclusion: "Deadwood ends too quickly, and not just because I was reluctant to leave its world behind once more," says Sam Adams. "Watching it, I could imagine a universe in which the show ran for years more, enough to more fully explore characters like Mr. Wu (Keone Young), the de facto head of the town’s busy Chinese quarter, or Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye), one of its few black residents. The show was exceptionally good at making characters feel like they lived full lives when they weren’t on screen, suggesting avenues it could have explored if there’d only been time. That world is closed now, but those stories are still there, waiting for others to find them and pull them into the spotlight."
Deadwood: The Movie feels like the best TV episode of 1997, and that's a good thing: "Its rhythms have a very 1990s TV feel to them, right down to a closing musical montage that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Northern Exposure," says Todd VanDerWerff. "It takes its time getting into the story, spending its first 40 minutes or so on reunions and other matters of relatively little importance to the plot. And, yes, there is a plot — revolving around a disputed gold claim, as all plots on Deadwood inevitably must — but if you’ve never watched this show before, you might wonder what all the fuss is about before it kicks in."
Deadwood's women are what made it a classic TV series: "As role models go, these women are just as shoddy on average as the men," says Judy Berman. "Even if it had been more popular, the show would never have inspired a Khaleesi-like vogue for naming baby girls Trixie or Alma. No one is demanding Joanie Stubbs or Calamity Jane action figures (though I would absolutely buy a pair). What makes these female characters 'strong,' to use an empty marketing term, is their completeness. Deadwood shows them respect not by placing them on pedestals, but by giving them wills separate from those of the men who use them for sex or obsess over their purity."
Al Swearengen showed that villains can be complex and compelling to watch: "Milch devoted a lot of screen time to Swearengen making choices: The camera lingered on his face as he encountered a tough dilemma, strategized, improvised, resigned himself, and then reconsidered," says Heather Harvrilesky. "And is there an actor in the history of television with a more expressive face than Ian McShane? When Swearengen contemplated his options, McShane’s face moved like a troupe of dancers, disparate but emotionally synchronized: a barely discernible lowering of eyelids here, a twitch of the jowl there, a chimplike display of gritted teeth, and then two lips pursed together in a grimace of resignation for the grand finale. Swearengen might’ve embodied the black hat of the Wild West — cruel, opportunistic, punishing — but he was also the single most reasonable, practical, and at times, merciful human in the town of Deadwood."
David Milch accomplishes a lot in Deadwood: The Movie's two hours: "The true magic of the movie is how Milch weaves his large cast together into a unifying story that gives each character something meaningful to do," says Dave Tach. "He has about two hours to reintroduce characters, have them act believably, set a new story in motion, and resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. Nearly character has an arc, in which they act in ways both familiar and credible."
Deadwood is the kind of TV series that isn't suited for the movie format: "Such sprawl and nuance are far better suited to a 36-chapter saga than an abbreviated epilogue," says Alison Herman. "A feature-length project is simply not able to accomplish what Deadwood originally sought to, and it’s best to go into the movie not expecting that it will. Instead, Deadwood: The Movie awkwardly straddles the line between serving as a microcosm of the series and delivering the simple, feel-good pleasures of a traditional last-hurrah special."
Executive producer Carolyn Strauss -- who greenlighted Deadwood when she was HBO president -- explains why the movie isn't really for newbies: "I think for everybody who was really involved in the show, it was a bit of an unfinished symphony. So it felt pretty natural to follow up on some of the scenes and the stories that felt like they were looking for some resolution or that David (Milch) had been thinking about. Hopefully, people who have never seen it before can follow along or refresh or start their memories by watching the series. It was the fans who were clamoring for the show to come back. We definitely wanted to make it accessible for all kinds of audiences, but we really wanted to make something satisfying for the hard-core Deadwood watchers"
Paula Malcomson says David Milch set her up to be a real actor: "I got to learn at the foot of a master. David used to do something no one else can do: He’d prepare your soul before a scene, you know? I learned how to work with the material being a living, breathing thing, a thing that anything could change at any time. That meant you had to always be on your toes because David had made you the co-creator of the character."
Olyphant applied his Deadwood experience to other roles: "I haven’t seen the show in a long time. I thought what I was doing was somewhere between mediocrity and just okay. The one thing I always felt I was really good at was paying attention and really listening to David. I really soaked in the experience and got a ton out of it. And it was the gift that just kept giving. I felt like I took it to every job. I kept relying on it, I kept leaning on it, I kept being inspired by it."
Ian McShane says Deadwood had to tell its story differently within a two-hour format: "It’s mainly a matter of length, brevity, and directness," he says. "You have two hours and a lot of characters. You can’t do as much of that Deadwood thing where people talk around and around, because time is of the essence. Also, structurally, a feature film is different from episodic TV — unless you’re doing something like the John Wick series, which I’m in, which has to end each movie on a kind of a cliffhanger, because they want to do John Wick 4, you know what I mean? But most movies aren’t like that. Most movies are either deliberately ending the story on an enigmatic note, where you have to decide what it meant and what to take away from it, or else they’re neatly wrapping things up so that all the questions are answered, and the piece is complete in and of itself."
David Milch describes returning to Deadwood as surreal and out of body: "I put the suit on and it was like I was back home again," he said at the premiere, adding: “Being here with you all again reminds me of the transformative power of our work. Coming together to create something that reflects the fullness of life in all its beginnings and endings, sorrows and joys and it is the greatest affirmation of hope and purpose that I could ask for.”