I am neither a big fan of Kevin Costner, nor of the Western genre; and while I may never feel the need to see Open Range again, I’m certainly glad I caught it. I don’t know quite what I expected, other than not much; I certainly didn’t expect a movie that’s just this side of greatness.
Strangely, the film has something in common with one of the week’s other openers, Freddy Vs. Jason: They both lack any hint of post-modern smugness. I don’t believe there’s an ironic frame in the entire eight reels of Open Range. I watched in wonderment trying to decide if Kevin Costner could actually be as simple as Open Range suggests (not simple-minded, mind you, but simple in his views) — and I think the answer is yes. And I think there’s something splendidly admirable about the fact.
This is the kind of movie Seabiscuit could have been had writer/director Gary Ross not wanted to create a huge allegorical statement that solved the Great Depression for us, making the lame walk and the blind see, and generally unraveling the riddle of the universe. Yet I don’t want to say that Costner has made an old-fashioned Western with all the retro baggage that implies (though, in a sense, that’s exactly what he’s done). First off all, he’s completely eschewed the modern Western trend of Cute Boys with Big Guns horse operas like American Outlaws and Texas Rangers. There’s only one cute boy on display here — Y Tu Mama Tambien‘s Diego Luna — and he spends the bulk of the movie lying comatose on an examining table.
The plot is just about as old as the genre: Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) are free-rangers (that is, they simply move their cattle from place to place, rather than setting up a farm) who run afoul of insidious cattle baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and his tamed sheriff (James Russo). The violence escalates to where Baxter’s men kill one of Spearman’s, Mose (Abraham Benrubi), then leave another, Button (Luna), for dead; they also kill Waite’s dog. “Men are going to die today,” Waite says at one point, and that pretty much sums it up, except for a charmingly played middle-aged romance between Waite and Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), and the moral battle Waite is waging with himself over his own hired-gun past.
As plots go, they don’t get much more standardized. The movie even drags in the late Michael Jeter as a character who would have once upon a time been a natural for Walter Brennan. It all seems like an old-timey cowboy picture, but this is deceptive. While Open Range sticks pretty closely to the standard Western, Costner isn’t trying to replicate an old Howard Hawks movie. Rather, he’s taking the cozy, familiar forms and allowing them to evolve into something just a little bit different — something a good bit less comfortable.
The bulk of the movie is methodical buildup to the “Men are going to die today” section, which turns out to be far more complicated and violent than anything about Open Range at first suggests. No, the film’s not a gore-fest, but the sound of a single gunshot is here far more shocking than all the thousands of rounds of ammo that blast their way across the screen in S.W.A.T.. Because the violence seems real — it seems cruel and vicious. The brutal manner in which the bullets impact their targets is more disconcerting than anything in Sam Peckinpah’s Western oeuvre (though it might be about on par with what we saw in Straw Dogs).
Even though we come to like the good guys and detest the bad guys, there’s no glorification of the killing, and precious little satisfaction to be derived from it. This is deliberate on Costner’s part, as evidenced by what he finally chooses not to show. Without giving away too much, I can only say that what would normally be the Big Moment in a film like this happens off-screen. And this works so forcefully because Costner has made you genuinely care about his characters; it’s impossible not to be concerned as to their fates.
But the real accomplishment is perhaps that, simple as this film is, it ultimately feels anything but — and it certainly doesn’t seem simplistic. Technically, Open Range is beyond reproach, with its almost effortless (and nearly idiot) grandeur. The only time Costner’s direction seems false are during those shots that lay it on with a trowel that Waite’s dog is going to end up in doggie heaven before long. The acting — including that of Costner, who here very nearly pulls off a performance that wouldn’t have shamed Gary Cooper — is splendid, and splendidly human.
At this point in his career, Costner couldn’t afford another box-office clunker, and judging by audience reaction and the bulk of the reviews I’ve seen, Costner not only salvaged his own career with Open Range, but just may have done for the Western what Moulin Rouge! and Chicago did for the musical.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke