Director : Kevin Costner
Screenplay : Craig Storper (based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Robert Duvall (Boss Spearman), Kevin Costner (Charley Waite), Annette Bening (Sue Barlow), Michael Gambon (Denton Baxter), Michael Jeter (Percy), Diego Luna (Button), James Russo (Sheriff Poole), Abraham Benrubi (Mose), Dean McDermott (Doc Barlow)
Kevin Costner’s Open Range has one of the best Western shootouts ever committed to celluloid. It takes up nearly 20 minutes of the film, and in it Costner depicts with frightening clarity the reality of what it must have been like to exchange rounds with six-shooters and shotguns. The violence is sharp, sudden, and loud. The guns fire with a boom that echoes throughout the empty main street, deserted by the townspeople who knew a fight was coming and decided to seek safety in the church on the hill.
But, most importantly, the violence is often awkward and unanticipated. It in no way resembles the clean, aesthetically pleasing violence of so many action-movie shootouts (although, near the end, Costner lapses into using slow motion, which is a crucial misstep). The gunfighters are a mix of novices and experts, and Costner prefaces the shootout with a monologue in which his character predicts how the various men will react. Unlike so many Western movie shootouts, not everyone stands his ground or does exactly what a screenplay might dictate. Rather, some men cower, others make mistakes, and one makes the first move in a way that is so sudden and unexpected that it keeps you off balance for the entire sequence.
This spectacularly depicted battle culminates a story about a power battle between free grazers and ranchers in 1882, not quite the end of the West, but the beginning of its soon-to-be-lost struggle with modernism. The narrative is deeply rooted in the traditional values that have often been associated with the Western; in this way, it is a deeply nostalgic movie, one that believes wholly in redemption, justifiable violence, and the enduring power of freedom. As a director, Costner has always been something of a sentimentalist, and if Open Range has a weakness, it’s that he allows himself to buy a little too much into a value system whose darker edges are all but ignored.
The two main characters are Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner), two free-grazer cattle drivers who have ridden together for the past decade. Boss, as his name implies, is the man in charge, and Duvall embodies the character with a deep-set nobility that doesn’t need words. Duvall’s performance is complete in every sense of the word; he inhabits the character as if he’s know him all his life. Charley is a younger man, but he has seen a great deal in his life and harbors a dark past. He looks to Boss as a kind of spiritual mentor, an ethical man of great kindness and decency who helps him keep his demons at bay.
Yet, as peaceful as he is, Boss cannot turn away when a cattle rancher named Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and his hired thugs kill one of his men and beat another to an inch of his life as a way of running them out of the area. Baxter is a hardened capitalist, a man who wants to fence up the open range and turn it into a privately owned commodity, something that goes against everything Boss and Charley have ever know. “Cows is one thing,” Boss ruminates, “but one men telling another man where he can go is something else.” Thus, because Baxter’s value system conflicts so drastically with theirs, violence is the only solution. The inevitability of this violence and the way in which Costner draws out its tension gives the culminating shootout much of its power.
However, much of the film is constructed out of slow, contemplative sequences, particularly the opening third, which uses gorgeous cinematography by first-time director of photography James Munro (a veteran Steadicam operator who worked on Costner’s Dances With Wolves) to underscore the beauty of the open range and to contrast it with the muddy, tight spaces of the small town in which the violence occurs. There is also an extended subplot about a growing romance between Charley and the local doctor’s assistant, a woman named Sue (Annette Bening). This is perhaps the film’s weakest link, as the relationship feels largely unnecessary and it forces Bening to occupy the overused Western cliché of the woman as symbol of peace and civility in a violent world. Costner and Bening do have some sweet moments together, and their chemistry is almost enough to overcome the derivative nature of the relationship.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick