A Slow Pace
The sight of wild mustangs thundering across the big screen during the opening credits for All the Pretty Horses really gave me a thrill. Wow, I thought, this is going to be great! And, yes, the horses are as attractive as promised --- but the film’s snail-like plot development caused me to lose interest early on.
High expectations for a movie starring Matt Damon also contributed to my disappointment with this Western drama. Damon always managed to hold my attention throughout his movies before. In fact, I rate his work in The Talented Mr. Ripley as one of the best performances of 1999. Prior to that, he excelled in The Rainmaker and Good Will Hunting. So what happened to this gifted actor in All the Pretty Horses?
As John Grady Cole, a Texas drifter seeking a better life in the Mexico of 1949, Damon certainly displays appropriate cowboy mannerisms (such as standing bow-legged with his thumbs thrust into his belt). And his Southwestern drawl is convincing enough while saying such lines as, "Down in Mexico they got ranches so big you can’t ride from one end to the other in a week." Unfortunately, Damon’s teeth sparkle brighter than the stars in a Texas sky, thereby spoiling the authenticity of this post-WW II character. When Cole and his buddy Lacey (Henry Thomas, the little boy in ET!) talk about their future in front of the campfire at night, Damon’s good dentistry distracted me from anything the two friends said, so I might have missed something profound here.
Then there’s Cole’s supposedly hot romance with Alejandra, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher (Ruben Blades). As played by Penelope Cruz (Woman on Top), Alejandra uses sultry looks and tears to get her man. But any sensual rapport between Damon and Cruz is missing until the film’s last few scenes. Consequently, those many hardships faced by Cole, partly as a result of his relationship with this emotional woman, seem unreasonable.
Putting everyone else to shame, Lucas Black (Sling Blade) brings excitement to the role of Jimmy Blevins, a teenage rebel who forces himself upon Cole and Lacey as they ride their horses into Mexico. This slow-moving film version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel actually comes alive while Black is on screen. Director Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) claims he had only one actor in mind to play Blevins. "It wasn’t really a matter of thinking of Lucas Black for the role," declares Thornton. "I simply knew he was going to be in the film."
Thornton made a wise casting decision in this case. Black looks and sounds every bit the tough-talking marksman who causes Cole and Lacey so many problems. When Lacey asks Blevins where a kid like him got a gun, Black is totally believable as he responds with an appealing twang, "At the gettin’ place." Too bad this intriguing young actor has so few scenes!
In spite of its deadening pace, All the Pretty Horses offers beautiful landscape shots of the Southwest. Cinematographer Barry Markovitz (Sling Blade) captures the awesome nature of wide-open spaces and immense, colorful skies. In addition, his dream sequence photography, especially of wild horses running free, emerges as pure artistry.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) faced an extraordinary challenge in adapting this first volume of McCarthy’s acclaimed Border Trilogy. It can’t be easy to condense into two hours a sweeping odyssey about a young man coming-of-age through his encounters with responsibility, love, revenge, and survival. Judging from the results on screen, it just might be impossible.
(Released by Miramax Films/Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for violence and some sensuality.)