Film auteur Kevin Costner returns to the prairies of 19th century America to
put together a loping tale of men scratching out a living with a herd of
cattle. The trouble is that Charley Waite (Costner) and Boss Spearman
(Robert Duvall) and their sidekick team are what's known as "free grazers",
moving their herd and feeding off the land. While the practice is legal,
it's like parking an SUV in a compact space... it inspires the wrath and the
hostility of others.
So, when Boss sends Mose (Abraham Benrubi) into the closest town for supplies
and food, and doesn't come back, Charlie and Boss investigate and find that
their man was beaten up by a gang in the employ of Denton Baxter (Michael
Gambon), the rancher who owns the land and runs the town with an evil, iron
fist. Confronting him and the sociopathic Sheriff Poole (James Russo), Boss
and Charlie control their anger and thirst for justice, agreeing to move their
herd -- an emergency ploy to retrieve their dangerously injured man and take
him to the local doctor for repairs.
Mose is tended to not only by the good doctor Barlow, but by Sue Barlow
(Annette Bening), in the general capacity of nurse, as well. She's also warm
and tenderhearted and, though both range cowboys note her beauty and
sensitivity, they draw the logical assumption that the doctor is, indeed, a
lucky man. When it comes out later that she's the doc's sister, the drum
beat of romance starts staking out a claim in Charlie's chest.
But, the things that men need to do in order to gain justice when the law
protects the guilty intrudes on the immediate path to romance.
Maintaining the code of decency that seems written on the prairie floor like
a road map of virtue, the men proceed to show courage and tactical skill in
their quest, honed to a fine point by more of Baxter's atrocities. But the
Costner pace is grinding, rustling up every ounce of preparation for the
climactic action and resolution. Let no audience misunderstand that these
battles have larger meanings.
The saga length of the story might have had more impact with 45 minutes less
indulgence and mythic gravity, a state of mind that seems to pursue Costner
into every celluloid adventure like an underfed bronco. If only he would
make his stories as succinct as his titles.
That aside, Duvall commands his share of the screen with all the authority of
deep experience and his patented taciturn manner. Costner, on the plains
with Boss for ten years as a means to keep his former killer skills
submerged, shows acumen and character in the way he defers to his elder and,
presumably, wiser range pard. Heck, Costner, the producer and director, even
took second billing to the man.
Annette Benning is delicious as the maturing woman on the brink of
spinsterhood suddenly dizzied by the arrival of a man with whom she can set
up a household. Costner has no trouble with casting creativity for his
films, also evidenced by a daring turn in giving the bad guy role to Gambon.
It's perfectly fitting that an Englishman would have a presence in the
settling of the west, so his Irish accent is clearly no detriment to evil
slickness. His is a hearty energy that fully fills any role in any
While "Open Range" pays obvious homage to such earlier fare as "Gunfight at
the O.K. Corral" with its last act shootout, to countless
gunslinger-vanquished-by-love stories, to the grit level of "Unforgiven",
this 21st century western is determined to brand itself with its own unique
take on the genre. We haven't seen "free grazers" before, have we? And the
love interest isn't a bar girl or prostitute eking out a miserable or
mischievous living until her guy comes along, is she? Even the bullets miss
as often as they hit. But, mixed in with all this originality we have the
nearly unavoidable cliches that not even Messrs. Costner and Duvall and
screenwriter Craig Storper could contend against. Yet, they can be applauded
for the many punches that connect.
~~ Jules Brenner