Open Range

Reviewed By Slyder
Posted 07/09/08 16:06:06

"Despite a few gunshot wounds, Costner finally brings back the old Costner"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

How time flies for sure. I still remember back in the early 90’s when Kevin Costner was THE shit. He came out two guns ablaze in Silverado and never looked back, churning out flicks like The Untouchables, Bull Durnham, Field of Dreams, Dances With Wolves and JFK, but then suddenly the rug was pulled from under him, or should I say, he pulled his own rug from underneath his feet, and started releasing crap like Robin Hood, Waterworld, The Bodyguard, and Wyatt Earp (probably his worst ever as an actor). Despite some flashes of brilliance in A Perfect World and Tin Cup, he’d always come up with utter horseshit like The Postman, For Love of the Game, Message in a Bottle, 3,000 Miles to Graceland or Dragonfly. For most of the 90s and the new millennia, it’s been a rough patch of a career for Costner, but despite that, one way or another, he’d be able to remember for at least one time what is it that made him great in the first place, and he’d bring us a film like Thirteen Days, or this little flick, which he directed and stars. Determined to prove at least to himself that he was once looked at as a really capable director with an Oscar under his belt and wash off the stink that The Postman left on his mark, Costner clings back the megaphone and brings us Open Range; a muted, a tad flawed, but very well executed character study which longs for the long lost days of the Wild West but unflinching at its violent nature, be it physical or political.

It has been noted that comparisons to Unforgiven have already been spoken for by several reviewers with just reason, as this movie also meditates about the pros and cons of violence and gunplay and the several shades of gray that lay between the words justice and vengeance. But not only that; Costner takes a simple story, based on the novel by Lauran Paine and adapted by Craig Storper, and turns it into an elegiac memoir of a time gone by, to which comparisons to High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and even Shane will also come to mind as well. A small detail of free-grazers (cowpokes with no ranch) roam amongst the beautiful prairies and valleys of Montana in the late 1800s; headed by “Boss” Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his partner of 10 years, Charley Waite (Costner), and their hired hands; the big teddy-bear-like Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and a Mexican kid named Button (Diego Luna). Oh, and also a dog named Tig. As they pass along the outskirts of a town named Harmonville, Boss and Charley send Mose into town for supplies. Time passes however and he doesn’t return, so both Boss and Charley go into town to look for him, only to find that he’s in jail for allegedly starting a fight, according to local lawman Sheriff Poole (James Russo) and big cattle rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). Baxter also doesn’t disguise the fact that 1) he’s the one that runs the town and 2) he’s not a big fan of free-grazers; in fact, he fucking hates the bastards. As Boss and Charlie head back to their herd along with Mose, they quickly realize that Baxter is a bad motherfucker to the nth degree, and he will stop at nothing to screw them and disperse their cattle. Despite an effort to anticipate some of Baxter’s hired guns from doing that, their herd is ultimately dispersed, Mose ends up dead and Button critically injured. From then on Boss and Charley entice themselves to take the law into their own hands and face Baxter and his men, even if it means their own death.

In an effort to gain credibility, Costner made the brilliant choice of casting Robert Duvall as “Boss” Spearman; the veteran actor brings with him an aura and stature of mythical proportions that bring back memories of old classic Western flicks. He embodies Spearman as a rugged man aged not only physically but also spiritually; he seems a tad beaten down by the tragedies that life brought to him and tends to be at times a little stubborn for his own good, but he still manages to find the courage to move on despite this and become sort of a father figure to his men and serve justice when it needs to be served. By casting himself in the role of Charley Waite, Costner challenges himself to measure up to his legendary co-star by embodying a taciturn and shadowy figure who has a past darker and more violent than what he would like to admit; he hates it when people stand behind his back and has no remorse when it comes to killing folks. This is probably one of the better performances I’ve seen from Costner in a long time (Never mind Thirteen Days as he was ultimately a mere supporting player compared to standouts Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp).

The film presents both Boss and Charley us as two cowpokes taking care of business, doing the job, minding their own things and the work at hand, but it isn’t until the conflict between them and Baxter arises when suddenly these two characters begin revealing things to each other about themselves, their past, and about what they hope for in the future, that they had never discussed before. This is the true heart of the movie, as both men, whom had never been necessarily friends, but rather grown people dedicated to their work, suddenly begin to care for each other and earn even more respect for each other despite their dark and troubled pasts. Boss yearns for a life beyond cattle herding and settling down while Charley not only looks to settle down as well but also for at least an ounce of peace of mind. It is through fleshing out the traits and complexities of these men that we ultimately end up caring for them, because as time advances and the climatic gunfight between them and Baxter’s men arrives, they know within their hearts that they may not make it out alive. For them, apart from their pistols and rifles, there are no better allies than friendship, honesty and respect for each other, up to the point of revealing their very true names in the end.

Though Costner earns high marks for this, his once steady hand tends to wobble a bit when it finally comes to Charley’s ultimate romantic interest in the form of Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), who is sister to Doctor Barlow (Dean McDermott) the town’s physician. Though a major plot component, the relationship between Charley and Sue isn’t well developed despite its promise and ultimately ends up a tad forced into the audience, especially after the film’s climax. A bit of screenplay treatment would have resolved this problem and given it a better denouement since it ends up bogging down the story from its peaks. Bening does the best she can with the part however with no quaver given heir unquestionable acting range. Michael Gambon is convincing as the malevolent Denton Baxter, whose actions and nastiness remind me of the utter evilness of Rufus Riker, the cattle baron from Shane. Oh, and it was great to see Diego Luna in a good film for once, since he hasn’t been in an actually good movie since Y Tu Mamá También.

Costner’s love for beautiful, wide open vistas is evident here courtesy of cinematographer James Muro, and both go to great lengths to present a rather expressionistic overtone in the film which not only connects with the nostalgia of the past but also with the revisionist nature of the present. The final shootout is handled in the most direct manner with unflinching takes on the brutality of its violence and the many shades of gray which both men, especially Charley, have to confront when it comes to serving justice and vengeance and how little leeway there is from that and blatantly killing someone in cold blood.

For now, it seems that good old Kevin Costner has finally delivered a very good movie, and despite a major hiccup in the storyline, its finally the one movie that proves that Costner can be a capable director as well as an actor himself, if he’s given the right story to work with. And he definitely works wonders in this movie. It may not reach the dizzying heights of Dances With Wolves and it falls a millimeter short from achieving classic status, but despite this there is no denial that this is one thoroughly great movie with a lot more depth and appreciation of a long lost genre than what can be given credit for. And of course, nobody can touch Robert Duvall with a ten-foot pole on this one, nobody. There’s a reason why the guy is a legend, and this movie just serves notice once more of that. Great stuff! 4-5.

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