Director: Kevin Costner
Cast: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates
MPAA Rating: (for violence)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 8/15/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
Kevin Costner's Open Range is a welcome return to the Western and more specifically to the romantic West. It's a place where the good guys are gentlemen and believe in things like chivalry, good intentions, justice, freedom, and love. So maybe the last one seems a bit out of place, and really, that is the one clear and disappointing flaw with the film. Otherwise, Costner is at the top of his game, both behind and—in something of a rarity—in front of the camera. The characters of the romantic West say little but reveal much in their silence. They have secret pasts that present events are sure to uncover. They don't take guff from anyone, and if the system's broke, you'd better believe they're aiming to fix it. This kind of material fits comfortably—perhaps a bit too comfortably. It's a double-edge sword, this level of familiarity. On one level, the images, characterizations, setting, and atmosphere all have a history and are more effective and, at times, powerful because of it, but on another, the outcome is never fully in doubt. Screenwriter Craig Storper (working from a novel by Lauran Paine) maintains a deliberate focus on his two central characters and, in the process, gives us people who are more variable than the story they occupy.
Times are changing for free rangers like Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner). That way of life is slowly coming to an end with the rise of ranches and businessmen. So as Boss, Charley, Button (Diego Luna), and Mose (Abraham Benrubi) journey across the open range to drive cattle, they come across a bad storm that holds them at bay for a couple of days. Mose goes to a nearby frontier town to gather needed supplies, but as the remaining three continue, he doesn't return. Boss and Charley head into the town only to discover that Mose was involved in a fight at the general store, has been severely wounded, and is locked up in the local jail. The town is run by rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and the figurehead Sheriff Poole (James Russo), neither of whom takes kindly to free rangers—an attitude spread throughout the town. Mose is released, and Boss and Charley take him to the home of Doc (Dean McDermott) and Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) for mending. Upon returning to the herd, a group of masked thugs has been waiting in the distance, and eventually, the party will come under attack, leaving Mose dead and Button in near fatal condition.
The film is meticulous in its setup, allowing us to indulge in the era and setting. Costner and first-time cinematographer James Muro capture an elegant, idyllic landscape in rich detail. The wide open spaces are contrasted with the gloomy, typically rainy streets and dark, threatening interiors of the town. The transition between the two moods of the film is subtle, beginning with the silhouettes of the masked assailants on the horizon and moving into a small forested area where they're hiding. As the story returns to the town, it has changed. The rain pours from the roofs, the road is flooded, and the dialogue is almost indiscernible under the noise. There's something almost breathtaking about this image of Boss and Charley walking down this dirt road in the rain with their guns, because it reminds us of so many other such scenes. Munro uses minimal, ambient lighting to great effect, with shadows falling naturally upon the proceedings and characters. Sometimes it is only a flash of lightning that allows us to see a character and then only for a few seconds. Costner uses the slow pacing to gradually build suspense from the image of the masked heavies, through the rest of story, and to its logical conclusion.
That conclusion, of course, is a shootout between Boss, Charley, Baxter and his men. Early on in the scene, our expectations are toyed with when one of the central characters is shot, but when we realize he will still be able to fight and ultimately live, the story becomes reliable again. Either way, it's a great, extended action sequence in which we know we're watching professionals. The participants are smart (except for the low rent thugs, naturally), watching for shadows on the ground, hiding in buildings, shooting out walls. Costner uses the entire town as the battleground. It's a fierce, violent, and intense sequence, and it even manages to get away with slow motion in its climax. Costner shows himself a master of pacing in this showdown, starting off abruptly and eventually permitting the characters time to regroup. It's typical for a Western to end like this, but the film deserves its shootout because its characters do as well. Beneath the pomp and circumstance of the genre conventions is the story of two friends who intrinsically trust each other—despite the fact they know nothing about each other—because they have to. We know these characters well by the time the finale comes around, even with Storper's sparse use of dialogue.Most of that knowledge comes from the actors, who imbue what little dialogue they're given with wisdom and show us the rest in the quiet moments. Costner is an actor of limited range, doing better when not speaking, and I think he's come to understand that. His character here centers on silent moments, and it's one of his best performances. Robert Duvall continues to be a formidable screen presence, and Annette Bening lends believability to a small, unnecessary role. Open Range does play up the relationship between Costner and Bening's characters, which is a shame because the resulting romance is forced and leads to an unneeded epilogue. Yes, it's the romantic West, but that doesn't mean there must be a literal romance in it.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.