Kevin Costner believes in the Western. You can tell. There’s nothing ironic or deconstructionist about Open Range, the director-star’s archetypal tale of itinerant cowboy heroes (Costner and Robert Duvall) standing up to a bullying cattle rancher. More than Dances With Wolves, more than Wyatt Earp or even Silverado, Open Range is an unapologetically straightforward throwback to the mythology and iconography of the classic Western.
The film makes no concessions to conventional wisdom about modern tastes or expectations: The story begins quietly, with no opening "hook" such as an attention-grabbing action scene, and builds slowly to a forceful climax devoid of any of the familiar twists of the modern action movie, such as the villain’s false death, or the hero’s superhuman skill and ability to endure punishment.
Gunplay is largely restricted to a single, lengthy sequence; and, where in a typical action movie thousands of bullets might be expended without anyone in the audience batting an eye, in this film every bullet counts, and the viewer feels its impact.
Costner and Duvall play a pair of free-rangers, cowboys whose home literally is the range, and whose itinerant cow-herding has become in these post-Civil War days unpopular with town-based ranchers. With them are a pair of hirelings: massive, bear-like Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi, the big guy on "ER") and slight young Button (Diego Luna, Y Tu Mamá También).
Boss (Duvall) and Charley (Costner) aren’t looking for trouble, but they aren’t going to be pushed around either, and when a rancher named Baxter (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter’s next Dumbledore) tries to bully them away from the town of Harmonville, which he has in his pocket right down to the marshall (James Russo), the free-rangers are uncowed.
Early skirmishes leave them with more than their pride wounded, and they’re obliged to seek out the services of the local doctor (Dean McDermott) and his sister Sue (Annette Bening, American Beauty) — the latter of whom Boss and Charley for some reason initially assume is the doctor’s wife.
That’s the setup for a simple, uncluttered tale of honor, loyalty, freedom, and frontier justice, padded only by a rather unpersuasive romantic subplot.
Veteran cameraman and first-time cinematographer James Muro does a fine job with the sweeping vistas, capturing such unusual images as clouds of insects glowing in the sunset. He and Costner show us unfamiliar scenes of old West life: a team of cowboys on the range huddled under a flimsy tent during a torrential downpour; a cowboy riding with a young calf lying astride his horse’s back as he drives the herd through a deep river; a one-street town still largely under construction, with one half-framed building partially collapsing amid rising flood waters.
Unfortunately, first-time screenwriter Craig Storper, adapting a novel by prolific writer Lauran Paine, is less successful. His script is hampered by clunky dialogue that alternates between wooden clichés ("They broke the mold when they made him"; "Quite a picture… I hear they’re worth a thousand words") and solemn platitudes ("A man’s trust is a valuable thing, you don’t want to lose it for a handful of cards"; mere minutes later, in an unrelated moment, "I ain’t one to take a man’s respect lightly").
Not that we necessarily want great oratorical skills in our cowboys. On the other hand, if the mold really was broken after a particular character was made, we don’t need another character spelling it out for us; we can reach that conclusion for ourselves. Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with platitudes, but they do start to seem self-conscious when served up too close together.
Even the romantic subplot is unconvincing chiefly because of the dialogue. I could just about buy most of a key exchange between Charley and Sue minutes before a dramatic confrontation; but later on they have another exchange that goes completely off the rails. "Do you know how old I am, Charley?" she asks, adding, "I’m not a girl any more." Has she not noticed Charley’s thinning hairline? He’s not exactly a teen heartthrob himself.
What makes the film more or less work in spite of its creaky dialogue is the sincerity with which it approaches its platitudes and even its love story. Boss and Charley aren’t whitewashed heroes, and their deadly confrontation with their enemies is more than a little tainted by vengeance. Still, it’s clear that somebody has to stand up to the murderous Baxter; no one in town is willing to do it, and federal authority is at least a week away — too long for Boss and Charley’s occupation to permit them to wait. It’s rough justice, but the only sort of justice that’s available.
Costner’s screen persona is well-suited to the laconic Western hero, and he’s more than ably supported by Duvall and Bening. Duvall and Costner both inhabit their iconic roles as comfortably and unself-consciously as their dusty buckskins; only Boss briefly displays a moment of self-awareness in which we see him consciously acting the part of the cowboy hero, not just inhabiting it, when he turns to Charley after a dramatic speech in a standoff with the marshall and asks, eyes twinkling, "What’d you think of my speech in there?" It’s my favorite line in the film.
Open Range pays more attention to ethnicity than most Westerns: Button is a Mexican orphan; Mose’s name suggests that, like the actor playing him, he’s Jewish; Baxter is an Irish immigrant. Religion, though, seems not to matter: Even when a liked character (who seems not to be a Christian) is killed and his friends bury him, they make no mention of his or their religion, except to express their anger and defiance toward God for allowing the tragedy. (Later in the film there’s a countervailing moment in which one of the same characters is urged to thank God for another life being spared and expresses some openness to this proposal.)
Without question, the film’s high point is the shootout. Charley, a Civil War veteran, sets the stage beforehand by sharing with Boss what strategic insights he has; he knows how haphazard and messy the battle will get, but can also predict that not all of the much larger number of opponents coming against them will really have the mettle to stand their ground with the killing begins.
Ultimately, Open Range is a bit like Charley himself: competent, flawed, unglamorous, grim but not unhopeful, it gets the job done. It’s not a great movie, but after ten years since Hollywood’s last stabs at the genre (a pair of unsuccessful Wyatt Earp movies, including Costner’s version, released in 1993, only only a year after Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven had made Westerns possible again), it’s nice to see even a decent one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.