Open Range

Dances with Wolves

Wyatt Earp


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Open Range
Review written by: Alex Sandell

It won't be long before Kevin Costner films are viewed by prescription only.  No drug could come close to curing insomnia in the way that Kevinís latest movie does.  Open Range looked to be the picture that would pull the fallen actor out of his decade long lull.  As producer, director and star of the film, there is no mistaking the fact that this is Costner's baby.  The soft-spoken one has always had fairly good luck with Westerns.  Dances with Wolves was one of the best movies of the 1990s, and one of the best Westerns ever made.  When you take into account the fact that it was Costner's directorial debut, it makes the film's critical, artistic and box office success that much more impressive.  The actor has had more misses than hits since the acclaimed Western, but it sounded like he was going to take his career back with Open Range.

Open Range starts out with a great deal of promise.  Four men are the last in a line of a culture of cowboys known as "freegrazers."  They try to keep out of other people's ways and make their livings selling cattle that they graze in wide open plains.  This doesn't sit well with many residents of frontier towns who feel threatened by the outside competition and increasingly obsolescent cowboy way of life.  The team of freegrazers comes across the frontier town of Harmonsville, where they get far more than they bargained for when a sinister rancher decides to wage war on the group. 

Sounds good, doesn't it?  Well, it isn't. 

The film moves slower than frozen molasses.  The majority of attempts at character development are laughable.  When Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) reveals to his best friend Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) that he was a gun-for-hire, working for men like the rancher who's now terrorizing Spearman's group of cowboys, the story seems to be headed into an Unforgiven type tale of redemption, vengeance and thoughtful introspection.  Instead, the "big reveal" is for no purpose other than to let the audience know what a good shot Waite is, so the lone gunfight that comes about 2 hours and 10 minutes into the picture won't appear to be quite as unrealistic.  Sure, Charlie will be outmanned about 7 to 1, but he's a good shot.  Remember?  He said so toward the beginning of the movie. 

The character arc that does work is Boss Spearman's.  Boss has always been a laid-back cowboy.  One of the best in the entire United States (the movie was actually filmed in Canada, to save on production costs).  He's a peaceful man and content with what he does.  He has a terrible aversion to violence, and when he's thrown into a world of it, he's lost.  Through Duvall's wonderful performance, you can believe in this character.  You can see the anxiety and apprehension behind his confident smile.  You can feel the weight that he's carrying.  This leads up to a couple of genuinely moving moments both immediately before and during the last gunfight. 

Excluding Boss Spearman's subtle and touching story, Open Range is staged to the point of being stagnant.  This is quite possibly the most predictable film released in 2003.  The movie itself should give a spoiler alert, because it never goes anywhere that the plodding screenplay doesn't announce to the audience beforehand that it's headed.

We know that Charlie Waite and Sue Barlow (Annette Benning) are going to fall in love, but there's never a spark between them.  We only know that romance is ahead because of the staged scenes where Boss Spearman conveniently leaves the couple alone together so that Waite can seduce Barlow with his ability to muddy her floor or destroy her expensive china.  Isn't the klutzy cowboy a cutie? 

Even more contrived are the "bad guys" in the picture.  The evil rancher.  The evil sheriff.  The evil guy who wants to be sheriff.  They're all the exact same character played by a different actor.  I'm wondering if the screen actor's guild asked the screenwriter (Craig Storper) to divide his one one-dimensional character into four or five one-dimensional characters, to give out-of-work actors a job. 

Finally the groups of cardboard standees meet for the big gunfight.  The scene is well-directed, until it turns into a mushy bundle of sap.  Just when you think it's over, Costner turns the film into a soap-opera, where he talks about kissing his girl a thousand times.  It's surprising that Costner didn't pad out the film even further by showing us all one-thousand kisses. 

Open Range could have been a good movie.  Costner had all the right ingredients.  A character with a violent past that he's trying to run away from.  A friend who's dreading the violent future that he's being pushed into.  A couple of cute dogs.  The open sky filled with beautiful sunrises.  A malicious rancher set on destroying the last of the freegrazers.  The right ingredients were all there, but with Costner at the helm, the movie found the wrong cook.  This isn't an "ode" to old-fashioned Westerns - it's a slap in their celluloid faces.

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Text ©(Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].