Open Range (2003) Movie Review

Fans of American westerns rejoice! Kevin Costner, coming off disappointments with “Dragonfly” and “3000 Miles to Graceland”, brings the world the first great western in, oh, 10 years or so. Not that Costner could have done any worst than the spate of Too Cool For School so-called “westerns” that have graced multiplexes lately. “Open Range” isn’t made for the same crowd that saw “American Outlaws” and “Texas Rangers”. This is a western for adults, for people who not only grew up with the genre, but also grew up loving everything about it.

“Open Range” stars Costner as Charley Waite, a cowboy working under the employ of the affable Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall). The duo have been working together going on a decade now and have two young cowboys working with them — gentle giant Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Mexican orphan Button (Diego Luna). Spearman and Charley are “free grazers” — cowboys who drive cattle through the country letting their herd eat grass as they go. It’s perfectly legal, but it also ticks off ranchers who have put in stakes and wants the good grass for their own herd.

When the foursome crosses path with Irishman rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) trouble is not far behind. Baxter is one of those who don’t care for free grazers, and he makes his point by having his men beat up Mose, who is in town for supplies. Charley and Spearman retrieve Mose from the cell of Sheriff Poole (James Russo), who is so blatantly in Baxter’s pockets that it’s disgusting. After Baxter sends men to steal Spearman’s cattle, kill Mose and wound Button, it’s time for good ol’ fashion revenge.

The best thing about “Open Range” is how simple everything is. There are no convoluted plotlines to be found. Films nowadays feel an illogical need to muddle things with unnecessary twists and turns (see the recently reviewed “The Battling Angel” for a perfect example), but “Open Range” plays it straight. These are not complex men we’re dealing with. They’re simple creatures of need and base desires. Baxter operates on no other motivation save greed, and Charley and Spearman are motivated by a need for justice and, even more basic, vengeance.

The only gripe I have with the film is its misuse of 20 or so precious minutes. These minutes could have been better allocated for the townspeople, letting us see them more than just incidental background characters. When the movie’s one and only gunbattle (and what a vicious and spectacular gunbattle it is!) takes place about 100 minutes in, the townspeople throw their stake in with Charley and Spearman. I would have liked to know why they were so willing to risk everything to rid the town of Baxter. The audience knows that Baxter is a bad guy from what he’s done to Mose and Button, but what has he done to the townspeople? We are never told, or shown.

At a time when the American western is starting to become extinct much like the cowboy life shown in them, it’s great to see a film like “Open Range”. Oh sure, the movie really doesn’t break the mold the way Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” did, or even Costner’s previous big success “Dances with Wolves”. And like a lot of recent westerns, “Open Range” seems preoccupied with the transformation of the West, spending much of its time making parallels between the people and the way of life. Even the score is a bit too obvious, begging for more subtlety. And one would have liked more than just that final gunbattle. Then again, these are minor gripes compared to what is given.

If Costner is spot-on as the laconic Charley, then Annette Bening absolutely deserves special mention. The character could have been just as incidental as the townspeople, but Bening makes her more. Bening is simply riveting as Sue, the sister of the town’s only doctor. Like Charley and Spearman, time is catching up to Sue, who still hasn’t married and confesses her fear of never finding someone to love and settle down with. She mind as well be echoing both Charley and Spearman’s thoughts, since her presence stirs dormant emotions in both men, making them question the life they’re trying so hard to preserve. Sue offers the film an anchor, providing hope and the possibility of redemption, and without her the film might have become too dark.

As for Robert Duvall, playing grumpy but good-humored cowboys must be second nature by now. Duvall is so perfect for the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it. As the greedy rancher, Michael Gambon is deliciously evil. Unfortunately Kim Coates (“Black Hawk Down”), playing Gambon’s ace killer, gets less screentime here than he did in the movie’s trailers. Too bad, because the character had potential to be an arch nemesis for Costner’s Charley, seeing as how both men are basically cold-blood gunfighters, even if Charley has let the “life” go.

It’s premature to say if “Open Range” will save the American western. The film was a critical success, but audiences mostly stayed away. I suppose time will tell if Hollywood will continue to invest in westerns. I certainly hope so. More than any other genre, the American western deserves — and needs — preservation. This is very much an American institution. It would be a terrible, terrible shame to see it go extinct.

Kevin Costner (director) / Lauran Paine (novel), Craig Storper (screenplay)
CAST: Robert Duvall …. Boss Spearman
Kevin Costner …. Charley Waite
Annette Bening …. Sue Barlow
Michael Gambon …. Denton Baxter
Michael Jeter …. Percy
Diego Luna …. Button
James Russo …. Sheriff Poole

Buy Open Range on DVD