There are few modern day actors who have hitched their career wagons to Westerns quite like Kevin Costner has. His big break came with Silverado, and a few short years later he would rack up Oscar gold with Dances with Wolves. There was Wyatt Earp and two – Waterworld and The Postman – that Cleveland makes a good case for being Westerns. But Open Range is perhaps his purest attempt at the genre. It lacks the historical scope of Dances or the minutiae of a life like Earp. There is none of the allegorical pining of The Postman nor the epic wackiness of Waterworld. It’s a straight, trope-filled, old-school American Western (shot in Canada).
Robert Duval and Costner play Boss Spearman and Charlie Waite, free grazers with a large herd of cattle outside the fictional town of Harmonville. One of their crew is sent to town for supplies where he’s jumped by several men who work for the local cattle baron played by Michael Gambon. You know he’s a bad guy because he’s rocking a crazy beard. While in town they meet the doctor’s sister, Sue, played by Annette Benning. If you think that there will be sparks between her and Charlie, congrats, you’ve seen a movie before. After the bad guys attempt to stampede Charlie and Boss’ cattle and leave their crew dead or injured, the movie gets to its core story, old-fashioned revenge/frontier justice.
There’s nothing new here, it’s a two hour cliche. However, about an hour in, I realized that I didn’t care. It was deliberately paced and almost painfully earnest in its production. It doesn’t explore the thornier moral dilemmas of the American Western like Unforgiven, it isn’t pushing any boundaries or attempting to define/re-define a genre. And while Charlie is troubled by his killer past, Open Range isn’t a character study or deconstruction of the cowboy mythos. It is, quite simply, a Western. And it’s a damned good one, too. It’s a pleasure to watch competent professionals make a piece of film that they’re obviously passionate about. Robert Duval, as always, puts in a nearly flawless performance. I’m pretty sure he was born a grizzled cowboy. You absolutely believe that he is Boss Spearman. Some of the best scenes in the movie are simple dialogue scenes between him and Costner, almost like there’s no script, just two guys talking.
There is a definite impression that Costner’s direction suffers from some rust. At least two scenes end with character’s mouths moving but there is no sound. And the whole thing suffers from what seems to be three endings. Every time I thought it was over, there was another scene. The earnest tone that served the movie so well threatens to overwhelm it in the shoehorned romantic scenes at the end. Unlike 3000 Miles to Graceland, where I wanted it to be over after 20 minutes, I was sad when Open Range ended. I wanted to spend more time with these characters. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Gunsmoke – simple, irony-free story telling with characters that are affectionately written. I’d tune in every week to see Kevin Costner play Marshall Dillon in a Gunsmoke reboot. Make it happen, Hollywood.
3 and a half 6 shooters.