Open Range
review by Gregory Avery, 15 August 2003

The characters in Open Range, set in the American West in the 1880s, show, among other things, a regard for life that encompasses both human and animal. Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) have been running "free-grazing" cattle for years together when two of the men who work with them during one run are bushwhacked by a posse from a frontier town. When Charley and Spearman go into the town of Harmonville to settle things up, the sky opens up and it rains, creating a flash-flood down the main street, and Charley plucks a small dog caught in the current before it is swept away. Such an act unexpectedly wins allies for him among the townspeople during what lies ahead, but you get the feeling that Charley would have had no regrets about rescuing the animal even if it didn't. Yet, the town's distrust of the cattlemen is not without warrant: they're reacting to what happened when the last group of "free-grazers" traveled through and messed things up.

This is the first picture that Kevin Costner has directed since the woebegotten The Postman, in 1997, and the reaction to that film seemed to have shaken his confidence -- his performance in Dragonfly was dullish and uncertain, and his attempt to do a character actor turn by playing a sleaze in 3000 Miles to Graceland was well nigh excruciating to watch. If Costner's returned to the Western genre, part of the reason could be because he simply looks well riding a horse. (His first attention-getting performance was as the frisky young rider in "Silverado".) But there's also a regard for the land where the story takes place, which in turn seems to infuse the characters with a sense of decency and moral certainty, one of the reasons why, when they have to take a stand, they don't do so lightly.

Duvall's character, Spearman, always makes sure that he's never slighting anyone who does him a service -- even if it's for gratis, he does not want to be overly "obliging" --and his concern over the harsh injuries inflicted upon the young cattle hand Button (Diego Luna, one of the two most excellent lads in Y Tu Mamá También) goes beyond touching -- this craggy, weathered man wouldn't want to be caught dead acting overtly sentimental, but he is never too far away for him to check on the younger man when his condition is not yet out of danger; he becomes a touchstone for Spearman's conviction. One was a bit concerned that Robert Duvall had started to coast along as an actor after his performances in John Q and Gods and Generals---playing Robert E. Lee in the latter, he blinked and looked as if someone had just woken him up after he'd taken a sleeping pill. This role, though, brings out his best performance in years, and he invests the character with great inner repositories of understanding and compassion, so that, by the end of the picture, we have a full intuition of who he is and why he does what he does.

Costner's initially taciturn character turns out to have been a former soldier who ended up serving in a guerilla band for the North during the Civil War, during which he found out that he had a great capacity for violence. That, plus the rainstorm that figures in the film, brings up comparisons with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which you try to rule out of your mind while watching this picture: for one thing, "Open Range" moves at a slower pace, although, once you settle into it, it turns out to be a considered pace. The film doesn't provide as much of a clear summation of Costner's character as it does of Duvall's -- there's a nagging sense that something more is troubling Charley than we're being informed about, or need to know -- but there's a remarkably-staged gun battle at the film's climax:  the guns go off loudly, and they're not accurate, and when the gunshots hit, they do so with force, as if every shot in itself mattered. And there's a feeling that, by going after the baronial rancher Baxter (Michael Gambon, whose performance in these climatic scenes is something else) and his men, the town is being rid of some lethal element in its physiognomy. Charley has also started up the beginnings of a tentative courtship with Sue (Annette Bening), sister of the town's doctor, and he's concerned that, if she sees a certain side to him (or, rather, a part of his past well-hidden), it might scare her off. She is scared, as she naturally well should be, but that turns out to be counting her short, and Bening ends up giving Sue such a radiant, triumphant quality that you wouldn't want to see Charley lose her if his life depended on it.

Before the gun battle, the film gives us a scene where Spearman and Charley stop in at the town's general store -- Spearman wants to buy some candy, something of a luxury out West at that time, and he wants the best candy in the store, which turns out to be some imported Swiss chocolate, which is so expensive the storekeeper has never tried it himself because he can't afford it. Spearman buys two bars of it, plus two good cigars, one of which he will later give to the livery man who has been of help to them (and is played, in a very good performance, by the late Michael Jeter). Not knowing how the showdown will go, Spearman takes the time to indulge his sweet tooth, and, when he and Charley are later hunkered down waiting to move in on Baxter's gunslingers, Charley checks his inside coat pocket and-  - yep -- his chocolate has melted in its wrapper. So he has it, then. This, plus a coda that establishes in what direction the main characters will go after the end of the story, are the type of things that would've been dropped by another filmmaker who was in a rush, who was concerned that, by a taking a few more minutes to provide something as trivial as character development and dimension, the audience would be lost. But there's a difference between a film being poky and being thorough. Open Range is ultimately solid, but not slow.

Directed by:
Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner
Robert Duvall
Annette Bening
Diego Luna
Abraham Benrubi
Peter Macneill
James Russo
Michael Jeter
Michael Gambon

Written by:
Craig Storper

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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