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Open Range (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 August 2003
The tremendous affection for him as a director from "Dances with Wolves" was almost wiped out by Kevin Costner's second directorial effort, "The Postman" (which isn't nearly as bad as its reputation insists). With his third outing as a director, "Open Range," Costner may regain a lot of the ground he lost.

And then again, he may not. "Open Range" is a Western, slow, moody and carefully wrought, full of tiny, well-chosen details and equipped with a sturdy plot that hearkens back to many Western classics of the past. But it is also deliberately paced; many of today's viewers may consider it slow and uninvolving, but for those with a taste for the classical moviemaking style, for a film that insists on depicting its characters as fully as possible, "Open Range" may pay great rewards. It certainly did for me.

It's not without its weaknesses; after the intense, action- and bullet-filled climax, Costner insists on wrapping everything up much too thoroughly, with too many heart-felt, meaningful conversations. At this point, many viewers will love the characters, but even the most indulgent might think, "Enough, already." But overall, the film is a notable achievement, well-acted, beautifully photographed, and aching with honesty and sincerity.

Robert Duvall plays Boss Spearman, a rugged, aging cowboy, owner of a herd of cattle he moves from one open range to another, until they're ready for market. For ten years his partner has been Charley Waite (Costner), a younger man whose slightly melancholy attitude suggests a darker past that is eventually revealed. Boss has two hands working for him, the enormous Mose (Abraham Benrubi), a sweet-natured general purpose hand who mostly works as cook and wagonmaster. Also there's Button (Diego Luna), a young Mexican who's eager to prove himself, but who deeply respects Boss and Charley, who found him as a young boy, eating garbage in a border town. They've taught him English and how to be a cowboy; his eagerness and naiveté amuse them, and without anyone saying so, it's clear both men regard him as a surrogate son. They have horses, some cattle, and a scruffy dog who's getting on in years.

It's 1882, and the days of the open range are coming to an end. From their conversation, it's clear that Boss and Charley have run into some problems with ranchers in the past, but keep on with their lonely, nomadic lives because they understand them; we learn that Boss, like Charley, has a good reason for living a vagabond life. A rainstorm forces them to hunker down for a night or two, then Mose is reluctantly sent to a nearby town to get some needed supplies. Boss worries when he doesn't return, so he and Charley ride into town to see what's up.

What they find introduces them to tough old Irishman Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), the biggest ranch owner in the area, who hates open range cowboys, and who is the resented boss of the town. The local sheriff (James Russo) works more for Baxter than for the town, arousing resentment in some of the townspeople, like old Percy (Michael Jeter), who runs the livery stable, and who strikes up a friendship with Boss and Charley.
The two also meet local doctor Barlow (Dean McDermott), who has little affection for Baxter, and to Sue (Annette Bening), a strong, handsome frontierwoman that the two cowboys take to be Barlow's wife. When they learn that she's really his (spinster) sister, a new plot element is introduced: Charley, the wanderer, is deeply if inarticulately attracted to her, and she to him.

The script by Craig Storper -- his first -- was adapted from the novel "The Open Range Men" by Lauran Paine. It's subtle, revealing details slowly and carefully, turning one of the most familiar Western plots -- the outsiders taking on the town boss -- into something that feels fresh and new. Although there's little doubt that the sheriff is corrupt, Baxter is presented with a certain degree of dignity (though not sympathy) as a tough old buzzard who's clawed his ranch out with his bare hands.

Costner introduces us to the other townspeople in an almost offhand manner; they meet one man when Charley braves a flooded street (the middle portion of the film takes place mostly at night in a torrential downpour) to rescue a little dog. They encounter others, like the shopkeeper, in similar unemphasized encounters. The script is careful to depict each person as a solid, three-dimensional character with lives of their own.

Production designer Gae Buckley has created one of the most realistic small Western towns in movie history. Usually, the towns are up and running, fully fleshed-out, when our pals the cowboys/gunslingers/whatever ride in for the first time. All the buildings are up, and look like they were built the same day. But Harmonville is something different; there are a couple of older buildings -- the area was once a fort -- but most of the buildings look so freshly built that you can practically smell the raw wood. There's even a building undergoing construction on the main street.

The movie was shot in Alberta, like "Unforgiven" (also produced by David Valdes), and used fresh locations in isolated areas. The locale of the story is never specified, but it "feels" like Montana, Colorado or Wyoming, with a palisade of gray mountains almost always visible in the distance. And there are the vast, rolling hills of the Old West. "Open Range" is at times astonishingly beautiful. This is the first film for James Muro as a cinematographer; he was a camera operator for many years, including on "Dances with Wolves." There are scenes here so glorious, particularly in their lighting effects, that it's clear we're witnessing the arrival of a giant.

All production details are top-notch, from the cinematography through the costume design, the sound (a new flavor of creaking leather), the production design, the location work. It's as well-produced a film as we're likely to see these days.

But the greatest strength of "Open Range" is in the characters, particularly those of Boss and Charley. Boss describes them as being practically an "old married couple," but it's a joke founded in truth. They were two men running from their pasts -- something they've never acknowledged to one another -- who find a source of strength in the other. Charley was a gunman who worked for ranchers just like Baxter, and he's ashamed of his past; what he's learned from Boss is courage, dignity, a love for freedom and a deeply-ingrained sense of right and wrong. Boss had a different past, but he was as lonely as Charley when they met; Charley has helped Boss find a focus in his life. Those who meet them instantly recognize that they're deeply locked together, way past the need to explain themselves. It's one of the most understated but strongly-realized depictions of friendship in Western history. They don't crack jokes, both are taciturn, but they love each other as much as any two straight men can.

This is a classical Western, and it observes the classical details, but brings a fresh view to all of them. Yes, we've seen other cowboys fall for aging women in small towns; this has been the direct subject of any number of movies, such as "Will Penny," and plays a part even in "High Noon." "Open Range" doesn't bring any new details, but the characters are so strongly depicted that originality isn't important. There’s a big gunfight at the end, between Charley and Boss on one side and Baxter and his men on the other. It’s also classical, somewhat resembling the big shootout at the end of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in that the combatants soon become highly mobile. Guns are depicted with respect here, and there’s an astonishing shot of someone being blasted from behind a wall by a shotgun that’s as stunning as any similar scene before now.
But it does go on too long, and so does the aftermath. The biggest weakness is that Costner just can’t let go of his characters without explaining everything he thinks we need to know. The film would have been stronger if the several conversations at the end had been compressed into one. But it’s a relatively minor weakness.

For the first time, Bening is playing a woman who's not as young as she used to be. It's clear that Sue has grown into her life with her brother, and has just about given up looking for a new man to ride into her life. She lives in a small town, she knows every person there, and there isn't anyone she's attracted to. So she helps her brother in his medical duties, she tends house and cooks, and spends a great deal of time on the amazing flower garden that surrounds their house. She knows exactly what Charley is when she first meets him; she isn't surprised to learn that he used to be a gunman, but she also knows that he's a very different man now. But she's strong and self-reliant; she's not going to beg this wanderer to stay with her.

The supporting actors are all excellent, though Diego Luna (from "Y tu Mama Tambien" and "Frida") basically has to sit out the last two-thirds of the movie. Still, in his scenes at the beginning, he creates an eager, excitable young man, so grateful to Boss and Charley that he has no idea how to express it. This was Michael Jeter's last film, and it's partly dedicated to him. He plays the Gabby Hayes/Walter Brennan role of the tough old coot, but, like so much of the film, brings a fresh perspective to this standard part. He's oddly monkey-like as he scampers around the rafters of his big barn, but loyal and imaginative as well.

Michael Gambon, well known for "The Singing Detective" and who turns up in films as different as "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Gosford Park," again brings a new view to the classic Western town boss. Baxter seems to have no wife, no children, nothing except his land and his tough ranch hands. He has no one to leave anything to, but he's still a proud, egotistical tyrant who hates the cowboys both because of a vague threat they present, and because they still have the freedom to ride on to the next open range.

Kevin Costner can be an excellent actor in his rather narrow range, as can clearly be seen in "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams" and "A Better Tomorrow." In the last decade, he's made some unwise choices, and wound up on the verge of being a media joke. But his performance here as Charley should sweep that all aside. Again underplaying in the style that suits him best, he gives us a man who's a lot smarter than he thinks he is, who's lived longer than he expected to, and has begun to realize that he can step out of his nomadic life. Charley is hardly colorful; you'd walk by him without a glance. But he's solidly depicted and well performed.

Robert Duvall is one of the best actors in movie history, capable of an astonishing range of characterizations, each one alike only in their utter credibility. Duvall moves into each role like he was occupying a desired territory; every move, every gesture is in service to the character. He can be tough and wiry (as here), or sleek and stylish (as in "The Godfather"). Whatever he is called on to be, he is.

Westerns have always expressed the most typically American of virtues: self-reliance, honesty, integrity, honor, justice, courage and a love of freedom. All of these are carefully woven into "Open Range," and the result is the best Hollywood movie released so far this year. At one point, Mose says admiringly, "Ol' Boss sure can cowboy." And the same is true of Kevin Costner and "Open Range."

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