Open Range (2003) ***
Directed by Kevin Costner. Written by Craig Storper, based on the novel "The Open Range Men" by Lauran Paine. Photography, James Muro. Editing, Michael J. Duthie, Miklos Wright. Production design, Gae Buckley. Music, Michael Kamen. Producers, David Valdes, Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts. Cast: Robert Duvall (Boss Spearman), Kevin Costner (Charley Waite), Annette Bening (Sue Barlow), Michael Gambon (Denton Baxter), Michael Jeter (Percy), Diego Luna (Button), James Russo (Sheriff Poole), Abraham Benrubi (Mose), Dean McDermott (Doc Barlow) et al. A Touchstone release. 135 minutes. Rated R.
Will "Chicago" encourage a revival of musicals? Or "Open Range," of Westerns. I have no idea but I do keep my fingers crossed. Not that Kevin Costner's movie has "success" written all over it. Still, warts and all it is welcome - and the Western film genre, deserves resuscitation. For its myths and realities, for its symbolism, its beauty, its American uniqueness. Cowboys still exist, as a breed apart, with often wonderful characteristics. For great photos go to the Internet's www.adamjahiel.com
That Costner loves the West is a fact. That he must have studied a host of Westerns, from silents to John Ford's (etc. etc. etc.) to spaghetti Westerns to Eastwood's is a given. The first narrative movie was the 1903 American short "The Great Train Robbery" --a Western. The first feature is arguably the Australian "The Story of the Kelly Gang" (1906) which is in effect a Down Under Western.
In his current movie, Mr. Costner sensibly gives top billing to the great Robert Duvall who plays a free-grazer, that is, a cattleman who has his herds help themselves to food that may be either public or in private hands. Duvall, whose nom-de-film is "Boss" Spearman, has a modest crew: Charley Wait (Costner) who's been with him for ten years; Mose a big, paunchy fella (Abraham Benrubi, seen in E.R.,) and "a kid" named Button. The latter is Mexican actor Diego Luna who has been in some 20 movies --mostly Mexican. He is best-known for his leading male role in the very popular (in the U.S.A. and abroad) "Y tu mama tambien." Mr. Luna is about 22, yet Button is 15 or so. No matter. It works.
The movie is set in 1882 in the American West which is played by gorgeous Canadian locations in Alberta, including an Indian reservation. Eye-candy of the first degree. It lengthy opening footage deals with the four men, their cows, plus a nice old dog. It's also an occasion to set up relationships, behaviors, talk that's unloquacious yet revealing.
Then Mose is sent to the nearby town and trouble begins. As usual, I will not disclose the story, except that it becomes a confrontation between our good guys and the town's bad guys, the latter being the local power, major landowner-rancher Baxter (the Dublin-born British stage and screen actor Michael Gambon) a brute who has in his pocket the totally corrupt sheriff Poole (James Russo.) Baxter has it in --and how! -- for all free-grazers.
The fighting between what you might call Big Business Ranching and The Little People has been a major theme in Westerns from the earliest days of cinema. But it is not a cliché. It does reflect reality -- and real-life models abound. One such case: the Johnson County Wars which began in Northeastern Wyoming not long after the events of our movie. Ranchers with major land holdings attacked small cattlemen whom they also called "raiders" or "rustlers." (Those "wars" were the subject of Owen Wister's most popular novel "The Virginian" which, in turn became movies several times. Later they were the model for Michael Cimino's notorious 1980 movie "Heaven's Gate," a major flop which, however, ought to be re-evaluated).
In "Open Range" the small town is a marvel of authentic looking sets, decoration and atmosphere. The place has fragility and authenticity, down to a saloon that feels genuine yet eschews the sameness of many saloons in other films; down to interesting interiors; down to cheap window glass that distorts the views. The entire movie was splendidly shot by James Muro, a most experienced camera operator whose first "director of photography" credit this is. Remember that name.
As Boss and Charley get to the town there's a torrential rainstorm, a true bravura piece. I will not reveal the series of plot developments -- and believe me, there are plenty of them -- except for the early introduction of Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) who lives with and assists the local physician, Doc Barlow. She is presented in a realistic, unglamorous yet quietly appealing fashion. You are also made to suspect a Bening-Costner romance-to-be. It does materialize, discreetly, in a low-key mixture of quiet, indirectly eager, nicely charming ways as well as affectionately humorous touches.
There is quite a bit of "colorful philosophizing" on the part of "Boss" and sometimes, Costner. It does no damage. We learn too that during the Civil War, Charley was in a para-military group of specialists (raiders?) and indeed killed a lot of people. So far, so good. At some point however, the center of gravity moves from solid portrayals to major unpleasantness to a huge shoot-out between the two good guys (plus a volunteer) and the most numerous Baxter-ians.
It's the old David-Goliath thing. That's when the film becomes a flick -- a compendium of the O.K. Corral, High Noon, and many others. It goes somewhat downhill, for too long and too far in its action. The bad guys mostly graze (no pun) their opponents. Our heroes' rifles and six-shooters seem to get reloaded in a flash or to contain dozens of bullets. The body count is of Schwarzeneggerian amplitude.
Even so, a second viewing does reward the film with three stars, if marginally. Were that it could be re-edited and shrunk to under two hours so that the public could focus more positively on several of this work's felicities. Among them, a clever, endearing small sequence in the local store as our two protagonists prepare for the showdown. Boss buys his first bar of chocolate (Swiss, no less) and Cuban cigars - sharing both with the store owner who had never tried either. Says he :"We sell them but they are too expensive for us." Charley, perusing a mail order catalogue, picks out a porcelain tea-set intended for Sue, whose delicate cups the man's large fingers had broken earlier. There are quite a few more good and simple bits. To mention just one, taken at random, when we get to the happy ending, as Charley indirectly proposes to Sue, she asks, sweetly, "How old do you think I am?"
Well, Ms. Bening, you were 44 when the film was shot; the mother of four children born between 1992 and 2000; still the wife of Warren Beatty; and un-Holllywoodishly charming..