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Open Range
2003 - R - 135 Mins.
Director: Kevin Costner
Producer: Kevin Costner
Written By: Craig Storper
Starring: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter
Review by: Marc Eastman
The only problem with ‘Open Range’ (well, no, there are some other problems) is that it carries with it the baggage of Kevin Costner. That’s not a problem with the movie actually, but a problem with the way people will view it. It’s popular not to like him these days. ‘Dances with Wolves’ was the focus of a backlash it didn’t deserve (whether it was Best Picture or not), ‘Waterworld’ was slightly more beaten than it ought to have been, adding fuel to the ‘not liking Costner’ fire, and ‘The Postman’ and ‘For Love of the Game’ were disliked before they were even viewed. Nothing in Costner’s list of credits is particularly excellent, and some of them are certainly downright bad, but pass or fail, he’s usually at least trying to do something. A lot of people may hate ‘The Postman’ (I liked it well enough), but I’ll choose that one (and indeed, almost anything Costner stars in) over monetary winners like ‘Bad Boys II’ every day of the week.

‘Open Range’ is a pretty simple story, and where it’s easy to call it a cliched story, I prefer to think of it as a classic story. Not that that means it necessarily needed to be told again, but it isn’t a foregone conclusion that there is nothing left to say. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) are cattlemen of the ‘free grazing’ variety in a time that is becoming hostile to ‘free grazing’. Along with two other helpers, Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna), they wander the countryside moving their cattle where their fancy takes them.

‘Open Range’ has a solidly above-average introduction, not because it gives us anything great, but because it gives us a well-rounded, workable overview of our characters in a great way. It gives us the difficulties of the life our ‘free grazers’ have chosen to live, not by showing us diverse obstacles, heroic struggles, or in general loftily stoic characters, but by the utterly simple massive rainstorm, the completely unheroic digging a wagon out of the mud, and the worry and tension of not even getting on that well with everyone on your own side.

We soon send Mose back to the last town for supplies, and when he doesn’t return on time, Boss and Charley set off to investigate. Mose is in the town jail, and badly beaten, after being jumped by three of our villain’s, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), men. Baxter, the area’s biggest rancher, wealthiest person, and resident nogoodnik, makes it clear that he doesn’t like ‘free grazers’, runs the town, and is willing to overact whenever required.

At this point, we’re already good on the story. It’s a stock Western story of having to make your own justice over those above (around the corner from, or simply owning) the law, that covers nearly every Western ever made (including recently, the excellent ‘The Jack Bull’). We do get enough spin, and even enough divergence from what is typical to make the movie relevant. Obviously, someone is going to die, revenge/justice is going to be meted out (or there will be attempt at same), the townsfolk will reluctantly semi-rise against the hated nogoodnik, and the good guys will, well, if not ‘win’ exactly, at least mostly be alive at the end.

‘Open Range’ works for a lot of reasons, despite some failings, and mainly because it is a decent effort to update things. Also, Costner makes a lot of good decisions. Chief among his good decisions is letting Duvall lead things a majority of the time. Costner is, for all intents and purposes, ‘the man with no name’ (except that his name’s Charley), but now we get a version of that with a personified id (or superego depending on how you look at it). He’s a ‘man with no name’ who has spent ten years with Boss, and has built a deep respect for him. Moreover, he’s a version with a real partner, and as the movie says, they fight like an old, married couple. The movie’s perhaps inept self-reference aside, it’s true, and a good move. Meanwhile, Duvall (in his first of two roles as a curmudgeonly goat (‘Secondhand Lions’ forthcoming), plays a character definitely in the style of many past genre efforts, but one that goes a bit further. Both characters are ‘stock’ in their own way, but their actions can still surprise you occasionally.

The movie also manages an updated effort status by virtue of what isn’t in it. A Western that doesn’t include the need to ‘dig a bullet out’ at least once is hardly possible, but ‘Open Range’ at least avoids the, now useless, scene where we watch it happen. It also (much like ‘Equilibrium’) sidesteps the ‘epic battle’. Of course, it has a climactic battle scene (and a great one) at the end, but what I mean is that it passes on the epic struggle it eludes to, and to which we have grown so accustomed. One particular bad guy, a hired man of Baxter’s, is noted as being the real ‘gunslinger’ of the group. The typical ‘that which Charley used to be’. The movie points at him several times, building us (as all such movies do) toward the final showdown between the main ‘toughest guys on the block’. ‘Open Range’, much to its credit, and the viewer’s surprise, bows out of its genres demands here.

The main attempt in ‘Open Range’ is to put a bit more character into a world we’ve seen before, and a world which is all but mythology at this point. It doesn’t completely succeed, but it comes close enough to be very watchable. Costner certainly stumbles a fair number of times, and frankly he’s never been able to convince me he was having anything like inner turmoil (though it is the main facet of every character he’s ever played), but on the whole he does quite well. Duvall, though not perfect, is nevertheless faultless. His is a wonderful character, wonderfully portrayed, and one which deserves the place it is ultimately unlikely to receive on the genre totem pole. Things get a bit trickier with our villains. Gambon’s Baxter is merely yet another villain who never read Machiavelli (who I believe said, “Never kill a man’s dog”... well, he’d have said it if he thought of it), and the movie suffers for it. In a movie that tries to give something more than a mere white hat to the good guys, the villain has nothing more than his black hat. The tragedy is how wasted Gambon (‘Gosford Park’, ‘Longitude’, and taking over as Dumbledore) is. The corrupt Sheriff is no better, being a mere genre stereotype, but at least you knew that was coming as soon as you saw it was James Russo.

The rest of the supporting cast tips things to the good. Annette Bening, who, try as the movie may, never becomes more than support, is quite good, though possibly not quite good for her (and it’s not as though she’s really great in any case). Bening plays Sue Barlow, who is Costner’s love interest, and the entire love interest side of things is mostly a washout. The movie’s pace stumbles horribly whenever a ‘love story scene’ comes along, and we’re simply trying far too hard to inject this plotline into the whole. It has its moments though. We also have Michael Jeter (‘Welcome to Collinwood’, ‘The Green Mile’) at work here, and he had long been better than anyone seemed willing to allow (Jeter died early this year). Here Jeter plays Percy, a somewhat odd stableman who aids our heroes in a variety of ways. His quirkiness calls to mind the odd humor of ‘High Plains Drifter’, though what is dispersed among most of the town’s citizens there is stuffed into one man here.

It’s about infusing more character, as I said, and you do that with dialogue. Screenplay novice Craig Storper is working our script here, and though there are some stalls, overall the dialogue is a cut above. Duvall gets the lion’s share of great, character-producing lines, but things are spread around enough to see us through. There is a lot of ‘dangerous’ dialogue, in that it potentially plays too easily into the hands of Costner detractors, but it’s good dialogue. Even when we’re involved with our love scenes, on the whole rather belabored, and as I’ve said, something of a misfire, the passable dialogue helps you through it. The end line (not to spoil things I hope), “How’s this going to work if you don’t do what I tell you,” is, even if somewhat silly, inspiringly honest to the character. Even beyond the dialogue, the script works well for making good on its promise of a relevant, interesting retelling. Again, Duvall’s character gets the most interesting play, his chloroform fetish and ‘if I’m going to die, I’m of a mind to satisfy my sweet-tooth’ attitude, both being nice touches.

‘Open Range’ has problems, and even apart from those I’ve mentioned, it has others. Not the least of which is that it has at least one too many dogs in it. Still, it’s a solid four stars, which I think is about where it’s aiming. Despite the Costner-detractors idea that his ego makes him think that every movie he makes is the new best movie in existence, all Costner movies strike me as aiming for about four stars. Solid, entertaining efforts with a bit of meaning and relevance to them. Of course, a few fall miles short of that, but not this one.

I often say that I’d much rather watch a movie that tries to be great and fails, over something that tries to be average (or less) and succeeds. Giving special note to the options newly released to theaters, I’d rather watch something that honestly tries to simply be a decent movie, over several choices that (insofar as you can say they are trying to do anything) try to make as much money as possible by appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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