Looming over all was the saloonkeeper and man-about-crime Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a curiosity among HBO antiheroes in that he served both as villain and a kind of order-keeping pragmatic figure in the gold-mining camp.
The series’s theme was how a settlement full of disorderly reprobates, exiles and rejects builds a society. Over the series, the balance of power shifted, threatened by the larger world’s impulse to organize, consolidate, tame and monetize, which culminates, at the outset of “Deadwood: The Movie,” in the 1889 statehood celebration for South Dakota.
I am assuming here that you’ve seen the original series. If you haven’t, I compel you to. It’s aged well, maybe because it was so sui generis to begin with, and the movie will still be there when you’re ready. (The movie does include the occasional refresher flashback, a device that broke the moment for me and won’t do much to orient the non-viewer anyway.)
If you have seen the series and plan a rewatch — or at least a refresher Wikipedia visit — I’d focus on Season 3. Its bloody events figure most prominently here, in the person of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the mining magnate, now a U.S. senator from California, who’s in town to address the statehood festivities and add to his holdings.
“Deadwood,” like “Westworld,” is an HBO Western set in the future. Its future just happens to be industrial-age America, and as the movie makes clear, the future has won. A train now stops at Deadwood. The wooden buildings have been replaced by brick and stone (a change precipitated in real life by a massive fire).
And Hearst — the relentless, mechanical face of the market, more brutal than any outlaw band for being organized and dispassionate — is running telephone lines across the wilds. Al, who once bemoaned the disruptive “imponderables” brought by the telegraph, sees the phone as an abomination. “A saloon is a sanctuary,” he says. “Any man worth the name knows the value of being unreachable.”