Open Range (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Whatever his faults as a filmmaker may be, Kevin Costner certainly understands the Western. Although Open Range is not on the same level as Dances with Wolves, it's a respectable effort that is only slightly marred by the unnecessarily protracted denouement. This is a great two-hour motion picture. Unfortunately, it runs 20 minutes longer than that.

Like most recent Westerns (not that there are an abundance to choose from), Open Range belongs to the "revisionist" category, which is to say that it turns some of the Western conventions upside down. In this film, it's pretty clear who the protagonists are, but they're not morally upright gunslingers wearing white hats. They have pasts that haunt them, and aren't beyond killing for a less-than-pure motive like revenge. Also, the centerpiece gunfight is as chaotic, unpleasant, and gritty as anything ever committed to film. This isn't two people facing each other on a deserted street with tumbleweeds blowing around. It's quick, brutal, and bloody.

The year is 1882 and the Old West is gradually being modernized. The frontier, like so many other things, is becoming a relic of the past. The post-Civil War race westward is wiping away the Indians and populating the land with towns where the rule of the gun is more important than the law. Free grazing, in which roaming cattle are allowed to feed wherever they roam, is still legal, but it is increasingly looked down upon by property owners who don't want their prime acres stripped clean. The conflict between a group of free grazing cattlemen and a wealthy, unscrupulous rancher lies at the center of Open Range.

Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) has ridden with Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) for a decade. Recently, they have taken on two apprentices - the gentle giant Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and the orphan Button (Diego Luna). All is going well until they reach a town "owned" by Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who doesn't like free grazers and wants Boss' herd. So, with the help of the corrupt local marshal, Poole (James Russo), he contrives to have Boss and his fellows murdered. Things don't go exactly as planned. Mose is killed and Button is badly injured, but Boss and Charley escape unscathed and with an appetite for vengeance. They take Button to the local doctor's house, where Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the sister of Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott), cares for him. Then, with the connivance of a local named Percy (the late Michael Jeter), they plot their first move against Baxter and Poole.

With its emphasis on realism over legend, the film's texture is just about perfect (although the need to rely upon an imperiled dog to engender an emotional response is an ill fit). Fans of classic Westerns will find much here that's comfortable and familiar, while those who are less-than-enthused by the "sameness" of the genre will discover that Costner has uncovered a new way to look at an old story. The tone is melancholy, but, unlike in pictures like Unforgiven and High Noon, there is room for hope and redemption. The movie's major action sequence owes a nod to Kurosawa and is not infected with the rapid-fire editing style that too many filmmakers have become enamored with.

Costner's casting choices, including himself, are right for the project. Robert Duvall, seeming a lot more natural and relaxed here than as Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals, is a delight to watch. He is at ease with the character as he is on a horse, and brings out many facets of Boss' personality - his toughness, his hidden vulnerability, his sly humor, and his desire to settle down. Costner's laconic style works for Charley, who is intended to be someone who doesn't show a lot of emotion. Costner's best scenes are the ones in which he fumblingly tries to express his feelings for Sue. Annette Bening is an excellent choice for the only significant female role. Although Sue never develops into much more than a love interest for Charley, Bening beefs up the part by doing a lot of acting with her eyes and expressions (stuff not in the script). As always when he puts on a black hat, Michael Gambon plays a deliciously evil villain. And Michael Jeter, in one of his best (as well as his last) supporting parts, steals several scenes.

There's something a little old-fashioned about Open Range, despite its modern approach to Western motifs. The cinematography is gorgeous, and could have been lifted out of a John Ford picture. Michael Kamen's score doesn't equal John Barry's work for Dances with Wolves, but it's adequate for its purposes. Most importantly, however, Costner shows that it was more likely the self-indulgent The Postman, not Dances with Wolves, that was the fluke. In what has been a lackluster and disappointing movie season, Open Range represents one of the best mainstream cinematic experiences to be had.

Open Range (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2003-08-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1