Okay, I have to admit that I was bracing myself for “Open Range.” I kept thinking, “Just what we need. Another long-winded western by falling star Kevin Costner.” After a series of bombs (including more than his fair share of failed westerns), I thought Costner’s career was over. (After all, the last film he made that had a decent return was “Tin Cup.”)
However, as the film started to move along, I found myself liking it. As things built to the climax, I found myself liking it a lot. By the end, I was thinking this is probably one of the best westerns made since Kevin Costner first hopped on a horse in “Silverado.”
The story is actually pretty simple. Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charlie (Kevin Costner) are free-range cattle drivers moving through the open west. When they get a little too close to a small settlement, the evil rancher Baxter (Michael Gambon) sends out his roughnecks to cause some trouble. In typical western fashion, Baxter has the Marshall in his pocket and owns most of the town. When Boss and Charlie head into town to seek justice, they find themselves fighting a war against Baxter in a scared town that desperately wants to be free.
One of the strongest choices Costner made was to not make himself the main lead. While his character is the focus at many points, including as the romantic lead against Annette Bening, the real workhorse that carries the film is Robert Duvall.
Costner has an affinity for dark, brooding characters, and Charlie is no different. But what makes “Open Range” different is that he’s not really the hero in the traditional sense. Boss is the moral center of the cattle drivers, and he doesn’t hesitate to set things right with Charlie. However, when things get ugly (and you sense early on that things will get really, really ugly), Charlie’s checkered past comes in quite handy.
“Open Range” is a throwback to the traditional western. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, which was loaded to bear with pirate clichés, “Open Range” has every hack element of a western: the lonesome strangers, the evil Marshall, the town living in fear, the explosive gunfight, the bad guys in black hats rustling cattle. And like Pirates, “Open Range” treats these clichés with respect, knowing full well that the concepts aren’t original, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work.
I have the feeling that the studio exerted some muscle on Costner and reined in his ego in the editing process. Some scenes, especially in the beginning, seem to end in the middle of dialogue and trickle away as if there was about an hour of exposition left on the cutting room floor. Not that this is a problem, really. Costner has always been in dire need of someone to trim down his films. Even his Oscar winning “Dances with Wolves” dragged and his flop, “The Postman,” could have been a really good movie if they had just cut an hour or so from its reels.
On a filmmaking standpoint, it is incredibly refreshing to see that Costner resisted the urge to use slow motion in the action sequences (except for one scene, which is all the more powerful because the technique isn’t overused). After The Matrix redefined action in the late 1990s, every crummy action sequence tries to repeat the power of “bullet time” often with little success. The action in “Open Range” is filmed real-time, grabbing the audience and showing them that when this kind of stuff happens in real life, it happens faster than you think it would.
In many ways, “Open Range” deals with a lot of the same themes as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” including the heroes trying to hide a soiled past. However, Costner executes this much better, building the action to a powerful climax of raw, unapologetic, visceral rage.
Of course, “Open Range” is not without its faults. Sure, it drags at some points in the first act. And the last ten minutes could have been considerably shortened. Annette Bening’s storyline isn’t all that compelling, although I can see the reason they put it in – to attract a female crowd. But in light of Costner’s track record, these elements are easy to swallow, and like any really good film, “Open Range” gets better the deeper you get into the story.
Watching Kevin Costner’s career is somewhat like watching a professional wrestling match. For almost a decade, he has been beaten up by his own films so bad that you think he’s over. Then he gets a sudden burst of energy and puts together one heck of a comeback. (Though, I’m sure that it won’t last. Sadly, good Kevin Costner films are more the exception than the rule here.)