Droid defines the Decades best movies – #13 Open Range (2003)
If there is one quintessentially American genre in cinema, it’s the western. But since it’s heyday in the 40’s and 50’s it’s been in a steady decline. I can think of only two in the last decade worth a damn. ‘3:10 to Yuma’ which saw the gimpy morals of Christian Bale contending with the charismatic outlaw Russell Crowe, and ‘Open Range’, Kevin Costners tale about a couple of tough old cattle grazers doing what’s right and stickin’ it to the Irish.
It’s 1882 and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is a trail boss to Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner), Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna). Settled on a range while their cattle feed, Mose is sent in to the town of Harmonville to gather supplies. When he doesn’t return, Boss and Charlie follow. They find him in the jailhouse, beaten and bloody. Once Boss, Charlie and Mose have returned to the range, Irish import and local land baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who detests cattle grazers, sets his hired guns on them, intent on keeping the cattle for himself. Mose is killed and Button is wounded. Boss and Charlie venture back in to town to seek medical help for Button as well as a heavy dose of retribution.
I’ll get this cliché out of the way up front. They don’t make them like this anymore. The writing, based upon the novel by Lauran Paine and adapted by Paine and Craig Storper allows the characters to develop slowly. Nothing is overly explained and a lot of what is said is through allusion. These are times before ‘sexting’, whatever the hell that is, or when everything had to be spelled out for someone to understand who you are. At one point, Boss says to Charlie “It paints a pretty picture, don’t it?” and Charlie replies “I hear they’re worth a thousand words.” In the moment it’s an amusing exchange, but it also adequately sums up the characters and the filmmaking. Each character is judged not just by what they say, but more importantly, what they do. They rarely come right out and say what they feel, but instead allude to it. We, as the audience, are never in doubt. The writing respects the audiences intelligence enough to allow them to follow. There is a morality to the characters that is essential to our ability to identify and care about them. They’re good men and women, not without their past, but they do what they believe is right and they act on those beliefs, whatever the consequences.
Robert Duvall is absolutely wonderful as Boss. He’s one grizzled old cowboy, and you never once question the respect he gets from Charlie, Mose and Button. Watching him in this role is a reminder what terrific actors he and his generation are, and I wonder if they’re going to be easily replaced. I think not. Costner ably matches Duvall, and plays his character perfectly as the younger man who respects Boss completely, and has his share of bad memories and regrets. Annette Bening makes what could have been a thankless love interest role into something more, and she and Costner create a believable romance between two people that are unsure how to proceed, but know they want to. Gambon as Baxter makes a suitably hateful villian, but it is in this character that the film may be at its weakest. Slightly underwritten, Baxter comes across as a little bit of a caricature. He seems at times to be channelling Alan Rickmans Sheriff of Nottingham in Costners ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’. Nevertheless it’s an entertaining performance, and doesn’t detract from the film too much. It all ends in a shootout, as Westerns invariably do (and must), but it’s a unique and terrific shootout unlike any I can recall. What’s unique about it is that it’s messy. There are no ‘shoot the wings off a fly from 50 yards’ superhuman sharpshooters. Just some that are better, and more experienced than others.
Credit goes to Kevin Costner, who couldn’t get this film made, so he sunk a large portion of his own money in to it. Modestly budgeted at around $22m (it was surprisingly successful at the box office), it looks gorgeous. Alberta, Canada stands in for Montana, and the lush green range, the punishing storms and the under construction expansion of the town are beautifully filmed by Costner and cinematographer James Murom. Michael Kamen provides a score that might border on the grandiose at times, but feels right.
‘Open Range’ is not intended to be much more than an entertainment. A throwback to films about men that were men. Men who rode horses, slept under the stars, were handy with a gun, drank whisky and smoked cigars, treated women and each other with respect and always did what was right according to their moral code. And it delivers a thoroughly entertaining, and always involving film that reminds us that ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’.
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