Retro Review: Open Range

The epic-western has always been at the heart of Hollywood obsession. Hollywood continues to brush away the cobwebs and reinvent the fading genre. But like the lifestyle it represents, the western is patient, persistent and passionate when it finally hits close to home.

Kevin Costner has had a rough road leading up to his latest directorial project, “Open Range”. Costner has been heralded as the “The King of Bombs”, “Mr. Baseball” and sadly a has-been. Costner is due for a comeback and his journey back to the prairies for some redemption could be at the centre of that plight.

Open Range” tells the story of two career cattle-drivers, Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charley (Kevin Costner) who stop to rest with their two friends, Button (Diego Luna) and Mose (Abraham Benrubi).

Running short on supplies, Boss sends Mose into town to fetch some supplies but after 2 or so days Mose doesn’t return. Boss and Charley become concerned so they leave Button with the cattle and journey into town.

In town, Boss and Charley run into the town’s twisted Sheriff Poole (James Russo) and his benefactor, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) as they try to get Mose out of jail. A feud erupts between Boss and Baxter when Baxter preaches about the town’s hatred of “freegrazers”.

When Baxter finally attacks trying to push the men from his land, it seems to be too late for Boss and Charley. With their backs are up against the wall, Boss and Charley have to face Baxter and his onslaught of men. Is it justice or vengeance? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Kevin Costner’s “Open Range” deals with a lot of “western” philosophy. There are sweeping picturesque pans of the high prairie. Boss and Charley are grizzled and seem to embrace their occupation with little remorse of their decisions.

They are a symbol of the simple and practical way a cowboy is. Costner sculpts “Open Range” in the same light as the philosophy of the genre itself. His scenery and laid-back feeling we get from our heroes is the purist form of what makes a western.

But when it comes time for change, they are as bull-headed as the cattle they drive. And being forced to change becomes a baptism of flame and blood.

Costner serves up a lot of things to cherish in this film but doesn’t give them the proper foundation to support the kind of epic he could have.

Costner emulates a lot of classic and brilliant westerns with almost every shot. There is a lot of influence here from “The Searchers”, “High Noon” and even “Unforgiven”. Costner knows the genre but he needed a deeper story. There are so many subplots unexplored and one was even abandoned. The one abandoned is probably the most aggravating in the whole project. We see that Costner’s character has either an illness or weakness.

Two scenes use this minor subplot as their catalyst but the final resolution or mystery is never really explored. One scene finds Costner’s Charley bending over maybe in pain as he tells his comrade to get out from behind him.

The second involves Costner seeing things and drawing a gun on his beloved Sue (Annette Benning). Maybe it’s just me but I find these scenes puzzling. Is he ill? If so is it serious? How will this affect his future?

The crowning achievement in the film is the long-drawn out gun battle. The battle is real and holds back no punches. There are plenty of bullets flying and hardly any hit people but you really have to see that this is probably the way a real gun battle is.

There is no acrobatics, spinning and shooting or incredible aim here. There is a lot of realism in the battle. I liked seeing this kind of gun battle. The battle is forged and fought within the confines of the plot and feeling of the film. This gun battle and a lot of the second half of “Open Range” is great filmmaking.

The performances in “Open Range” reminded me a lot of previous westerns. Duvall’s Boss is so like his beloved Gus McCrae in “Lonesome Dove” I almost thought people in the film were calling him Gus instead of Boss. Gus McCrae is alive and well in Duvall.

Costner’s Charley reminded me some of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in “Unforgiven”. Charley has the same reluctance but knows its going to get bloody as they search for justice. Charley is haunted by demons like Munny. Please don’t get me wrong, each actor is superb in each role but just couldn’t help but see the similarities.

There have been so many comparisons between this film and “Unforgiven”. I don’t believe that this film is in the same league as 1992’s Oscar-winning “Unforgiven”.

It has a lot in common but no where near as powerful, dark or alluring. What is strange is that the film poster for “Open Range” even in some ways looks like the poster for “Unforgiven”.

Open Range” is a flowing western in the spirit of a great John Ford western. But I found the film dragged quite a bit and didn’t have the depth required to make this genre compelling. I have to herald Costner for his return to the genre and that this film is a great step forward to regaining past glory.

(3.5 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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