In the years since “Dances With Wolves.” Kevin Costner has had difficulty fine tuning the heroism he’s embodied on screen. In movies like “Waterworld” and “The Postman,” he cranked things up comically high. In releases like “For Love of the Game,” he dialed them too far down. The actor’s no John Wayne or Clint Eastwood but he does have the capacity to generate a credible old west presence-a claim few in his generation can stake-and, in his latest directorial effort, gives a performance that’s pretty much note for note on the money.
“Open Range” teams Costner with the great Robert Duvall as a couple of free range cattlemen making their way west with their herd until trouble stops them in their path. A fateful chain of events is set in motion when a member of their crew (ER’s Abraham Benrubi) rides into a nearby settlement for supplies one 1882 day and fails to return. The three remaining (Costner and Duvall are also accompanied by a 16 year old French stray they’d taken in along the way played by Diego Luna) debate how best to proceed and, in the process, the two men reveal their profound distaste for towns. The way the word sticks in their craws, you’d think they were contemplating a visit to a leper colony or Turkish prison. It’s just one of the picture’s numerous restrained but illuminating scenes.
Costner and Duvall decide to share the burden and, once there, discover they’ve stepped into an elaborate trap. Michael Gambon gives a mesmerizing performance in the role of an Irish-born rancher/land baron whose vast ownings include the local sheriff. The two find their friend beaten and jailed. When they stop by to extricate him, the rancher and corrupt lawman are waiting. After delivering an ominous lecture on the low esteem in which he as a land owner holds free grazers who, after all, do use other people’s property as the feeding ground for their animals, Gambon allows the three to return to their herd and wagon in the hills. By the time they’ve made it back, Duvall’s worked it out that they were permitted to leave so that the rancher’s men can follow under cover of night to slaughter them out of sight of the villagers and claim the cattle.
Before long, blood is shed, forcing Costner and Duvall to choose between abandoning the animals and making a run for it and facing the vastly superior numbers of the land baron’s personal army. This being an homage not only to a way of life that’s vanished but to a breed of simple, freedom loving men who’d die before they’d take this level of crap from anyone, Costner sets course for one of the most stirringly choreographed shootouts in movie history.
In the moments leading up to it, the director also succeeds in telling a touching love story, sketching an assortment of memorably colorful characters both good and bad and offering a convincing picture of what it’s like to make one’s home on the range. Duvall’s virtuoso rendering of a tough as nails but soft hearted cowpoke is worth the price of admission all by itself. Which leaves as gravy an awfully lot of good stuff.
In the course of his film, adapted from the novel by Lauran Paine, Costner channels great western directors like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood while putting his personal stamp on every frame. The camerawork is awe inspiring in places, the score is splendid and the dialogue by Craig Storper is precision crafted to give each word maximum impact.
Filled with small pleasures and not for a moment bogged down by loftiness or pretensions to the mythic the way a lot of other westerns have been in recent years, “Open Range” is an exhilarating fusion of new and old Hollywood that proves there’s still life left in one of film’s oldest forms. Good for Costner: at the close of a summer cluttered with dumb action films, sequels and remakes, he’s bucked the trend and put himself back in the saddle again.