Cinema Signal:

The Invention of the Western Film:
A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half Century by Mark V. Lonsdale

. "Open Range"

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 setting.

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack album


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Site Rating: 10

I believe the reviewer was aware of the message my husband (Lauran Paine) was trying to get across in his book THE OPEN RANGE MEN, that this was what the West was like in those days and also telling about the free-graze period of the West which few people even knew about before. Hat's off to the reviewer.

                                                          ~~ Mona Paine

[Editor's note: This reference is to the book that the screenplay for this film was based on. Many thanks, Mrs. Paine. Your validation is enormously appreciated! ~FC

Well written
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Site rating: 7

This film is better than "Unforgiven."

                                                          ~~ Ralph G.

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Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall
Excellent range dudes

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