The western used to be a staple of Hollywood with the movie industry turning
out a new one every few days for most of the first 50 years
of cinema. But since the liberalization of the film industry
in the í60s, the western has been a declining art form. Fortunately,
if you enjoy westerns, the smaller number being produced has
resulted in a higher overall quality. Open Range is
a prime example of this.
Kevin Costner, who produced, stars in, and directed
Open Range, has a love affair with the American west
that comes across beautifully here. The cinematography is
spectacular. Itís not just the wide open prairies that are
breath-takingóalmost anyone filming them can do wellóbut the
way the main town is brought to life. Itís far more than a
back lot and the richness of the setting adds tremendously
to the feel of the movie.
Making a pretty movie does not necessarily mean youíve made
a good film though. It takes a solid plot and the ability
to stick with it, and this is where Open Range excels.
At its heart the movie is about change, the exiting of one
way of life and the introduction of a new way. In this case,
itís the ending of free range cattle and the coming dominance
of barbed wire fences and land barons. The conflict between
these two similar but philosophically opposed groups is a
seldom-told tale that offers no clear-cut good guy or bad
guy. Costner chooses to cast the land owner as the villain
in this version of the story but it could easily have been
told from the other perspective.
The plot itself is fairly simple and does not need its 135-minute
running time, but instead of filling the intervening moments
with pointless action sequences, we are treated to some of
the best character development you can see. Costner plays
Charlie Waite, a partner and protege to Robert Duvallís
Boss Spearman. They have been riding the range together, following
their herd, for 10 years and have a simple relationship built
upon mutual trust and respect. They ride with two other hands,
Mose (Benrubi, of ďE.R.Ē fame) and Button (Luna),
who are less experienced but are gaining the trust of the
two senior riders. The cramped living quarters and long hours
make them a close-knit group, but also put them at each otherís
throats. Each one of them is a man with a history. Unlike
many cardboard cutouts seen in some westerns, they are easily
believable as people and not just characters on the screen.
In contrast to the excellent portrayal of the good guys/
free rangers is the heavy handedness with which the villains/ranchers
are portrayed. While Costner and Duvall are basically good
men with flaws, Michael Gambonís Denton Baxter and
James Russoís Sheriff Poole are bad men without any
trace of good in them. Whether this is done to make the film
less morally ambiguous or to help the average moviegoer pick
sides is unclear but their one-dimensionality is the only
real flaw in the film. Often the best role in a movie is that
of lead villain, but thatís for a white hat vs. black hat
movie where the villain is expected to be, well, villainous.
The characters here all have shades of grey, which makes the
evil actions of Baxter appear out of place.
The film also has the late Michael Jeter as a good-natured
and gossipy stable owner and Annette Bening as a doctorís
assistant and Costnerís inevitable love interest. The development
of the relationship between Costner and Bening, while just
a subplot, is handled with as much care as the rest of the
film. They do not fly into each otherís arms even though their
mutual attraction is obvious. The actions are believable and
the building of their relationship adds weight to the climactic
fight. The climactic fight is another thing that separates
Open Range from most other movies. Even though itís
pretty much the only fight in the movie, itís masterfully
done. It is gritty and realistic, putting it in the same league
as Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch. From the reaction
of the townspeople, the pre-fight revelations of the main
characters, the suddenness and finality of encounters, to
the moral dilemmas in brief moments of clarityóit is all handled
with deft brush strokes.
Who should see this movie? If you enjoy westerns, you will
be treated to one of the best to come around in a long time.
The action, while mostly limited to the final reel, should
please almost anyoneójust expect to watch a good story while
you wait to get there. If you need romance in your movies,
the budding relationship between Costner and Bening simmers
wellójust donít expect sparks to fly every time they meet.
The best thing I can say about the movie is that it would
work well in almost any setting. Itís driven by great characters
and has something in it to appeal to almost any movie fan.