Open Range

August, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Kevin Costner

Starring:Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, and Annette Bening

Kevin Costner's work, (as actor, producer and director) reminds me of the couplet from an old nursery rhyme about the boy who, "when he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad he was horrid." How else to explain his sprightly work in Tin Cup and Bull Durham on the one hand and his leaden Wyatt Earp, (not to mention the disastrous Waterworld) on the other? The answer may lie in the fact that when Costner stays in front of the camera and works for someone else, his modest charms can be used to passable advantage--but when he's also managing the production, the results run the gamut from pious, (Dances With Wolves) to ludicrous (The Postman). Costner projects always manage to be a bit pretentious and a tad long, as though Kevin just can't quite stifle his urge to linger on the screen past the point of maximum effect. Despite breathtaking cinematography, a highly credible and exciting gun battle and a fine performance by Robert Duval, Open Range ultimately succumbs to both of Costner’s flaws, draining much of the life out of what otherwise could have been a fine revival of the classic Western.

Costner and Duval play a pair of old saddle tramps, moving a herd of beef across open country in the early 1880's with the help of a teenage drifter and an oversized hired hand who gets savagely beaten by thugs working for a local cattle baron because he reacts strongly to the bovine freeloaders grazing on what he thinks should be considered his exclusive domain. When violence erupts, Costner seeks help from a doctor in the town controlled by the cattleman responsible for the mayhem and meets Sue, a "woman no longer young", played by Annette Benning. Escalation ensues, and a final confrontation with the imperious rancher is the inevitable outcome; but it's a damn long time in coming-- steely glances, laconic philosophizing about the lonely life of cowboying and painfully earnest exchanges between the emotionally blocked Costner and the school-marmish Benning make you wish the director spent more time on Duval's impish trail boss and less on the love affair that gets very old before it gets resolved….

Sentimentality in a movie isn't a bad thing; some of the best works of great directors like Capra and Ford have repeatedly demonstrated that it can be both successful and commercially lucrative if properly handled. Those pros for instance, would have understood Costner's motivations in giving his character a scruffy but lovable old dog as a companion; but having killed him off, (remember John Wayne's dog in Hondo) Costner then has his character rescue a puppy that looks just like you know who… that's not sentimentality, it's mawkishness. The director cleverly inserts a scene in which he inadvertently breaks some of Benning's best tea-cups and saucers, causing him no end of embarrassment. What does he do? Minutes before the gunfight that will probably take his life, he pencils a will, (in a hardware store) tearing a page on china from a mail order catalogue to attach to it--and you just know you'll hear that will being read, in voice over, directing the sale of his modest possessions in order to buy some new crockery for…well, you get the picture. A director who doesn't trust himself is bad enough; one who doesn't trust his audience is even worse.  

Despite its overworked plot and stock characters, Range is not without its charms: gorgeous scenery, (from location shooting on an Indian Reservation located in Alberta, Canada) a frighteningly violent gunfight, (made credible by its enormous number of badly aimed rounds) and Duval's patented depiction of a guy who's the perfect blend of character and crust. Much effort also went into the creation of authentic costumes and sets, to terrific effect; this year's Oscar for best headgear has to go to Costner's hat, a sweaty, properly dented version of the one worn by Tom Mix and his countless brethren in those timeless B-Westerns of the 30's and 40's.It looks genuinely used from a lifetime of honest work. Since there is little that can be added at this point to the western genre, Costner re-examines it well, drawing on the muddy streets and clapboard look of Shane in creating an  unwelcoming frontier town and de-glamorizing the life of a trail hand by providing an authentic look at the amount of pure boredom and manual labor it contained. Craig Storper's screenplay, (based on a novel by Lauran Paine) occasionally manages to wedge some credible dialogue in between the platitudinous speeches he serves up for Costner and his lady-love. For his part, Duval's required to hit a trio of knuckleballs soliloquies; he grounds one out, gets an infield single with another and miraculously puts the last all the way out of the park.)

 In the end, this lushly shot and workmanlike production finally collapses under the weight of its own pretensions. Westerns are the stuff of myth; it requires great skill to make a really serious one that doesn't wind up being simply ponderous. Clint Eastwood did a credible job of that in Unforgiven a few years back, and Costner clearly put great time and effort into his examination of similar material. With faster pacing and more modest ambitions, this could have been a diamond in the rough; as it plays out however, (at 2 and 1/4 hours) the audience gets zircon instead.

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