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
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
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.