Kevin Costner’s career has had some low points in recent years. In fact, since his Oscar-winning directorial debut with “Dances With Wolves,” many have criticized him for making one bad film after another.
“Open Range” tells the story of two cowboys raising a herd of cattle through the practice of “free grazing.” This practice angers a wealthy rancher when the herd arrives in his territory. Violence follows, which climaxes in the most amazing western gunfight in film history. (It is interesting to note that prior to this gunfight, virtually all the violence in the story is off-camera. The climactic gunfight, however, is extremely violent.)
“Open Range” takes its time telling the story. Costner seems content to treat the audience to beautiful shots of fields and mountains. These panoramic views alone are worth the price of admission.
There are also two fine performances from the leads. Robert Duvall continues to be one of the best actors working today. His role as “Boss” is a genuine Duvall characterization. Boss is not as compelling a character as Gus McCrae in the TV mini-series “Lonesome Dove,” but that is not Duvall’s fault. The dialogue Duvall spoke as Gus came straight from the Pulitzer Prize-winning words of Larry McMurtry. Here, Duvall’s dialogue is simpler as he plays a simple man living by a simple code of morality that he expects everyone to follow. (There is a little resemblance to Gus, however, when Boss goes to buy chocolates before the gunfight.)
Costner is also good in the quiet role of Charlie Waite. Waite has many demons from his past, which play a key role in what is to come in this story. Costner portrays the many emotions of this conflicted cowboy quite well. Boss and Charlie are surrounded by many supporting characters (including actor Michael Jeter in his last role before his death), who flesh out this story of power, control, right and wrong.
There are a couple of weaknesses to the film, and both are plot-related. First, the romance between Charlie and Sue (played by Annette Benning) seems more Hollywood than reality. It would have been more interesting if she had been exactly what he originally perceived her to be, and if she had been firmer in her protests to the pending violence.
The second flaw in the film comes from the motivation that causes the protagonists to take a stand. Film lovers have seen too many films, and particularly too many westerns, where vengeance is the source for eventual bloodshed. “Unforgiven,” Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western, did it better a decade ago, and so did Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” just last year. The film would have been stronger if simple vengeance had not been the catalyst for the events of the third act. These weaknesses do not demolish the strengths of the film, but they are significant enough to prevent this good film from being great.
Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” though it has come under a lot of criticism in recent years, still stands the test of time. It is an emotional epic in every sense. “Open Range” is not as strong a film. But for beautiful panoramic filmmaking, strong performances, and one perfectly filmed extended gunfight, “Open Range” is probably the best Western one can hope to find—at least until the next great one comes along.
Roger Thomas is pastor of First Baptist Church in Albemarle, N.C.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Director: Kevin Costner
Writer: Craig Storper
Actors: Charlie Waite: Kevin Costner; Boss: Robert Duvall; Sue Barlow: Annette Benning; Denton Baxter: Michael Gambon; Percy: Michael Jeter.