Open Range

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/19/07 00:27:37

"Among the very best westerns, either new or old."
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s easy to forget that the reason Kevin Costner has become a punchline over the past few years isn’t due to a lack of talent, but a series of bad decisions. Costner tried to venture out into the unusual, with extremely ill-fitting results. (What’s such a regular Joe like him doing in bizarro sci-fi epics like “Waterworld” and “The Postman?”) When he tried to return to his old self, he just wasn’t picking the right projects; “For the Love of the Game,” for example, reminded us that we like watching the guy in sports movies, but the story just wasn’t there. Despite the occasional success, it seemed Costner, as we once knew him, would never be back.

This is why it’s such a pleasant surprise that “Open Range” is more than a good movie - it’s a great movie. With Costner directing as well as acting, the star finally lands a picture that just feels right. It’s a grand old western the way they used to make ’em, simple and elegant and cool and dusty and marvelous. But more importantly, while watching the film, I kept thinking how natural Costner looked in his cowboy getup, and how the filmmaker and the epic western go hand in hand. It’s the right fit.

“Open Range,” adapted from the novel by Lauran Paine and scripted by Craig Storper, is a gloriously old-fashioned oater, the kind Louis L’Amour would write in his spare time, in which good guys stroll into a bad town and make things right. The good guys here are Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charley (Costner), cattle drivers moving their herd across the majestic plains of the American West, circa 1882. They’re free grazers, letting their cattle eat and rest wherever’s under open skies; it’s legal to do so, but frowned upon by the folks of Harmonville. And it just so happens that the cowboys are setting up camp on land owned by Harmonville’s wealthiest (and therefore most powerful) resident, Mr. Baxter (Michael Gambon).

Needless to say, Baxter and his men make their moves, Boss and Charley make their own, there are shootouts and tough talk and people fleeing from Main Street. In this aspect, “Open Range” is brutal, slick, and everything cool we love about westerns.

This is especially noticeable in Duvall, who, like his co-star, seems not like a movie star playing cowboy, but the real deal. His role here is another perfect fit. When the aging star lays down his own form of justice, we cheer, partly because the bad guys deserve it, but mostly because Boss does it with such rugged style that it becomes complete, unadulterated cool. Watch as Boss cracks a baddie upside the head, then spits, “You listen out of your good ear.”

There’s a lot of manly cool in “Open Range,” which builds toward an explosive climax that tops the shootout in “Tombstone.” Charley spends the film letting his rage bubble up to the top, and when bullets start flying, it’s a release of fury that literally makes the sky shake: every gunshot echoes with such power that it sounds like the thunder of a Norse god.

But while “Open Range” is a powerful example of western toughness, it’s also quite gentle. The film is less a generic genre tale than it is a deep look at male friendship. Boss and Charley have been riding together for ten years, and they joke about how they act like an old married couple. They are both men with a deeply rooted sense of honor and chivalry, true gentlemen in every sense of the word, like knights in stirrups.

The movie’s heart extends to two other relationships. Boss keeps such a careful eye on Button (Diego Luna), the Mexican boy hired as cook and cowhand, that while it’s unsaid by either, we know that it’s a father-son relationship. Button is wounded by Baxter’s men, and the pain in Boss’ heart extends to the audience.

Meanwhile, Charley has found himself falling in love with local spinster Sue (Annette Bening), both of whom have given up on love long ago. Their growing love is quiet and tender, and you can see in Costner’s eyes a man who doesn’t quite know what to do with this emotion he’s kept buried for so long.

The romance in “Open Range” is quite beautiful, so when Charley, a man who hoped to leave a secret, violent past behind him, is forced to become violent once again, the story plays out like “Unforgiven” with a love story. It doesn’t sound like a good idea - how can Eastwood’s dark tale of vengeance and redemption find room for light romance? - and yet it works. Costner balances the violence of the situation with the warmth of the characters’ hearts, understanding that these are bad men turned good who must then do bad things for the greater good, if you follow me.

There’s a brilliant scene in which Charley looks over the town and sees the death and destruction his form of vengeance has brought. Other cowboys in other movies wouldn’t even notice, but you get the idea that such violence will haunt Charley for the rest of his life.

And that’s why “Open Range” is arguably the best western made since Eastwood’s Oscar winner. This is more than a gritty shoot-’em-up or a lush widescreen spectacle or an old-fashioned romance. It’s all three. It’s mean and sweet, gorgeous and grimy. It’s an adventure not afraid to spend time examining its characters, and it’s a drama not afraid to add the punch of action. It’s a grown-up tale with something for everybody. And yes, it’s the mark of a glorious return for Costner to great epic filmmaking.

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