2003, R, 138 min. Directed by Kevin Costner. Starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 15, 2003
Kevin Costner’s Open Range is the best new Western to come out of Hollywood in a long time. But given the small number of Westerns churned out these days, that statement is close to meaningless. Certainly, with its double whammy of star and director as one and the same, Open Range calls to mind Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven. (Both films are also co-produced by David Valdes.) Yet Open Range, though visually lovely and ambitious, never soars to the heights achieved by Unforgiven. Costner’s film lacks the moral complexity that might earn it a solid berth in the canon of the American Western. Open Range establishes its basic narrative conflict between the story’s "freegrazers," who constantly move their cattle across the open country of the West, while stopping to make camp and feed wherever they like, and the ranchers, who wish to preserve their private property from the vagabond cattlemen. But once Open Range defines this conflict, it ceases to explore its implications and nuances. As the agitated rancher of a town of no specific location called Harmonville, Gambon is reduced to a black-and-white caricature who froths and seethes with murderous venom toward the freegrazers, but is provided with no backstory that might explain why this Irish immigrant is so worked up. Costner and Duvall play the freegrazers Charley and Boss, who’ve traversed the countryside together with their cattle for the last 10 years. They are classic Western cowboy types with unspoken bonds and vaguely mysterious pasts. In Duvall lies the movie’s secret weapon. The actor inhabits this role of the elder cowpuncher like a suit of worn rawhide. From the glint in his eye to the mud on his boots, everything about his characterization tells us that this is the kind of role he was born to play. Costner, too, gravitates toward Westerns (and ballplayer movies) whenever he has the chance, and although his performance is good, Costner the director hasn’t a clue as to when to say, "Cut." The camera lingers on Charley (and others) for unduly long takes, which sap the energy from the drama and its action. At two hours and 15 minutes, Open Range is too long by a half-hour, overburdened as it is with shots that serve vanity more than storytelling. An epic length alone does not make a movie an epic. And the love story between Charley and Harmonville’s doctor’s assistant, Sue (Bening), adds nothing to the overall story and lacks the kind of romantic sparks that might make these sequences simply fun for fun’s sake. Open Range, however, is not without its charms, despite its problems with length, romance, and narrative conflict. Chief among these, as mentioned before, is the opportunity to watch Duvall achieve what seems like dramatic perfection. Also delightful are the supporting performances of Michael Jeter (in one of his final roles), Diego Luna (of Y Tu Mamá También, and Abraham Benrubi (of E.R.). The film’s last half-hour is devoted to a vividly shot and choreographed shootout in the center of town that gains huge marks for its unpredictability and emotional realism. The sequence shows that Costner has studied his Westerns and has lots of fertile ideas about how to present these horse operas to contemporary audiences. It’s clear that Costner loves his Westerns, but maybe not as much as he loves himself.