The New Old-Fashioned Western
The good old-fashioned Western hasn't seen the light of day in years. Who expected it to show up in the form of a new Kevin Costner-directed movie? Open Range carries a few warning signs of Costner's bloated-epic vision -- it's a Western, it features sweeping scenery and wide open spaces, it's over two hours long. But this movie doesn't try to do anything more than tell a simple tale about two men trying to do the classic western thing -- make a stand in a land where "the law" and "justice" are relative terms.
As Open Range takes its time unwinding, its presence becomes more and more welcome as we realize it's confidently gimmick free. On the one hand, it doesn't threaten to crush its audience with weighty ponderousness; on the other, it doesn't employ stubble-faced young gun stars in the name of frivolousness. This is a Western in its most confortable present-day guise. If the early Westerns were mostly straight-up hero-villain adventures and the last wave of Westerns were about cold men with moral ambiguities, the post-Unforgiven western works best as deglamourized, realism-colored tales of complex men. In this mode, the genre has a place in the modern cinematic playing field as a showcase for men facing tough challenges in a world of general lawlessness.
Open Range emerges as a tiny step down from even that level of ambition, and, as a whole, it works precisely because it's comfortable with that. Although still a story of men -- in this case, a veteran free-ranger named Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his serious-faced right-hand man Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) -- facing a tough challenge, the gravity of their situation is nicely counterbalanced by the portrait of the deep friendship between the two. Duvall wins viewers over with his performance as a man whose general at-ease nature is evidence of an outlook refined by his years. Kindly looking up to Duvall, Costner plays a character who would be prone to non-stop brooding were he not in the company of Boss. The highlights of the film come from the informal and often humorous banter between these two.
The overall effect of this choice of tone is unexpected. Open Range has plenty of serious events, but its mood in many places is warm and fuzzy, a feeling emphasized even more during the scenes featuring Annette Bening as a potential object of affection for Costner. More humor occurs as Charley has trouble trying to find the proper way to behave before Bening's character, a nurse named Sue. The gentle and amusing scenes of interaction among the three main characters, interspersed among the scenes of moving the business at hand forward, gives one the idea of how Rio Bravo might have felt if it were made with today's less playful tones (complete with a Walter Brennan-like character in the late Michael Jeter, but not including a singing cowboy kid).
Even a modern-day Rio Bravo, however, would not have included such an intense and brutal gunfight as the one featured in this movie. Another highlight, this pivotal scene in the film is expertly set up with tension oozing in from all sides, fueled by the uneasiness that comes with finding reasons to chuckle while one is facing certain death. If nothing else, this showcase alone would be reason enough to sit through the two hours-plus of this movie.
Open Range isn't without its problems -- its good guys are presented as men struggling against the urge to kill a helpless person, even if he is an enemy, but that struggle isn't terribly convincing because the movie has done too good a job showing us how good-hearted these men really are. Maybe they're a little too good-hearted, just as the villains in this movie are a little too evil -- Michael Gambon plays Baxter, a rancher who hates free-rangers so much you can see him becoming more one-dimensional as he speaks his lines to illustrate this point. Also, that juxtaposition of warm-fuzziness with business-seriousness doesn't always go smoothly -- the audience is inclined to giggle at parts that might actually be serious, especially during the romantic sub-plot, which, at times, feels forced. Nevertheless, Open Range succeeds when viewed in a modest light. It proves the new-fashioned Western can deliver good old-fashioned entertainment.
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "R" for violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.