Open Range

2003, Movie, R, 135 mins


A leisurely elegy for the American West with "Kevin Costner's Unforgiven" written all over it. That's not inherently a bad thing: Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN (1992) is one of the best Westerns of the late 20th century. The drawback is that actor-turned-director Costner isn't Eastwood. The western frontier, 1882: Grizzled Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is a free-grazer, a land-poor cattle owner who keeps his stock moving and grazes them on the wide-open range. Boss has a crew of three. Second-in-command Charley Waite (Costner) is a veteran saddle tramp who doesn't talk much but knows everything worth knowing about working cattle and living off the land. Chubby, perpetually optimistic Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and callow Button (Diego Luna), the closest thing Boss has to a son, are the younger hands. Boss has been in the cattle business for years, but times are changing, and more and more of the verdant prairie has been bought up by ranchers who don't see why homeless herds should be taking food out of their livestock's mouths. Boss's crew inevitably runs afoul of brutal Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who owns the land they're camped on, the nearby town of Harmonville and local Sheriff Poole (James Russo). Baxter is willing to discourage free-grazers by any means necessary. His men kill Mose and Charley's dog, grievously wound Button and try to scatter Boss's herd. In the face of such provocation, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Charley and Boss bury Mose (with the dog for company), leave Button with Harmonville's thoroughly decent doctor (Dean McDermott) and his spinster sister, Sue (Annette Bening), and prepare to exact frontier justice. Based on Lauran Paine's novel The Open Range Men, this spare story of the changing West is handsome and deeply respectful; it's also too long and handles certain cliches clumsily, guaranteeing laughter at the wrong moments. But the extended, HIGH NOON style shootout is suitably brutal, chaotic and messy, and extending the sequence to include its grim, sad aftermath was an intelligent touch. The movie's real trouble is that Costner's performance as an aging cowboy who finds his killing days just won't stay behind him doesn't resonate with the weight of more than 25 years in the saddle, from TV's innocent Rawhide to Italy's brutal spaghetti Westerns, as did Eastwood's. And while Costner the actor clearly imagines himself the Gary Cooper of the 21st century, he's got a crude sentimental streak that Costner the director fails to curtail. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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