Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review: "Open Range" a Welcomed Western (Happy B'day, Robert Duvall)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 139 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

Open Range (2003)
Running time: 139 minutes (2 hours, 19 minutes)
MPAA – R for violence
DIRECTOR: Kevin Costner
WRITER: Craig Storper (based upon the novel, The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine)
PRODUCERS: Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts, and David Valdes
EDITORS: Michael J. Duthie and Miklos Wright
COMPOSER: Michael Kamen


Starring: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, and Kim Coates

Much has been made of Kevin Costner’s ode to classic Western movies, the surprise hit Open Range, but I think this film is very good on its own, even if I ignore the respect it pays to older Westerns (so much so that it shows its influences). Open Range is Costner’s third credited effort as a film director (he finished Waterworld although Kevin Reynolds received director’s credit), and it shows that Costner shines when he’s making Westerns.

In the film, Costner is Charlie Waite, the protégé of Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), a grizzled free graze cattleman. Unlike ranchers, freegrazers herded their cattle across the unowned land of the West. This was fine prior to the War Between the States, but after the conflict, big ranchers began to buy up all that open range, and they considered any land near that property to also be their territory. Consequently, the resented freegrazers’ cattle roaming across the west, so conflict ensued. When Spearman, Waite, and their men tend their herd on a patch of unspoiled terrain near the makeshift town of Harmonville, they encounter the wrath of vicious Irish brute named Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). Baxter, a heartless rancher, owns the local sheriff (James Russo) and lords his power over the scared town folks. Baxter and his goons beat up one of Spearman’s men (Abraham Benrubi), and when Spearman and Waite fight back, the violence escalates from there.

Costner patterns Open Range on a number of sources, both old and new. In spirit, the film’s tone resembles Clint Eastwood’s epic film Unforgiven, and the immediacy of the violence in Open Range is similar to the portrayal of violence in Tombstone. Other than that, the film is pretty much its own thing. It lacks the snap and crack of older westerns, but Costner does fool the audience. The film’s laconic pace and somber mood in the beginning belies the coming storm of righteous violence coming in the end. The funny thing is that you can really identify with both Boss Spearman and Charlie Waite’s fierce sense of independence, and you can easily digest their need to bring hell down on those who go out of their way to deny Spearman and Waite their rights to a livelihood. Both characters strike me as men with a low tolerance threshold; they won’t warn you off too many times about screwing with them before they bring the pain.

Open Range is a gorgeous film with beautiful vistas of the wide, open spaces – an untamed country of beautiful green prairies and hills and of a lovely but dangerous sky. Even the filthy little town has a pretty quality to it despite all the dirty earth tones that define it.

This film is also one of those times that Kevin Costner’s monotone delivery of his dialogue works; usually that’s just a sign of poor acting. His Waite is quite man hiding a dark past; he’s slow to anger, and even when he explodes, he really doesn’t come apart at the seams so much as he remains a steady assault of death dealing. What more does one need to say about the consummate talent of the brilliant character actor that is Robert Duvall? He’s always a pleasure to watch and with his talent, he finds a way to make it seem as if he and Costner are old partners, both in the film and in reality. There is so much good chemistry between the two one might think this is just the latest in many film projects together. Many of the other parts are a bit hokey, character types familiar to almost every old horse opera, but the actors redeem them with the quiet and serious intensity of actors who treat every role as if it’s a career defining moment. Even Annette Bening gives her role as the saintly spinster Sue Barlow some zing as she makes goo goo eyes at Costner’s Waite.

I loved this film, and I heartily recommend it to people who love westerns, especially the old-fashioned kind in which bad guys (with their figurative black hats force) loose-spirited men to do something they’d rather not – pick up a gun and take a human life to save their own. I can see this as a stable on such cable channels as Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics, and Open Range has Saturday matinee written all over it. At times it is too dry and slow, but the grit and determination of the characters and the filmmakers will hold your attention. Beside, it’s also one of the few recent movies where all the male actors act like real grown men and not overgrown teenage boys.

7 of 10


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