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Open Range   C

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Kevin Costner
Writer: Craig Storper (based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi, Michael Jeter, James Russo.

Review by Rob Vaux

Kevin Costner gets something of a bad rap. Critics have chuckled over his gradual decline with barely concealed glee, citing self-indulgence and ego as the doom of all he touches. Certainly, debacles like The Postman make for easy targets, but dismissing his work as worthless both obscures his talent and draws attention away from the real culprit. Costner knows his way around a movie camera far better than most directors, and his acting, while limited, can be deeply compelling in the right role. His flaw comes not from a lack of ability, but with the fervor in which he embraces his projects. There's a terminal earnestness about them, a solemnity that alienates viewers before they can appreciate the good stuff hidden underneath. Nowhere are Costner's skills more adroitly displayed -- along with the turgid poker face that prevents us from truly enjoying them -- than in his latest work, Open Range.

As a western, it has some pedigree (the joke goes that Costner's only good wearing baseball caps or cowboy hats). His naturalistic tendencies find an appealing subject in 19th-century Montana, which he and DP James Muro stunningly recreate from the vistas of Alberta. He also has an impressive cast at his disposal, led by no less than Robert Duvall. The two play free-range cattlemen, Costner's Charley Waite the junior partner to Duvall's Boss Spearman. They're quiet men with straightforward values, speaking volumes with their taciturn silences as they guide their herd across the plains. Their friendship plays, in Spearman's words, "like an old married couple," and both have ugly pasts they're trying to escape. The film's early scenes bring an understated romance to their lifestyle, relishing the simple way they make their peace with the world.

Unfortunately "simple" has an ugly way of becoming "simplistic." The postcard geography and meditative characters do well for the first 45 minutes, but as the film stretches on, they struggle to contain our attention. Conflict comes in the form of a sinister rancher (the underused Michael Gambon) hoping to push the free-rangers out of his territory. A nighttime altercation leaves the two mens' compatriots dead or wounded, and with no recourse from the law (owned by their nemesis, natch) they're forced to seek vigilante justice. The scenario has bite, but it takes its sweet time getting rolling, leaving a lot of empty air to fill the interim. Costner's torrid earnestness slowly descends upon the proceedings, lending every line of dialogue such deadly weight that even Duvall can only support it for so long.

Things grind even slower with an ill-conceived romance involving Waite and the local spinster (Annette Bening, doing as much as she can with a show pony role). The awkward speeches and fumbling affection ring true for the characters, but their scenes are so clumsily handled that all they evoke is unintended giggles. Through it all, the buildup continues with no resolution in sight. On and on we go, as Gambon snarls, Costner and Duvall squabble like old hens, and the opportunity for a timely resolution passes with excruciating sloth.

The payoff makes up for things somewhat. Having wisely kept the early violence offscreen, Costner finally cuts loose in a spectacular shoot-out which, though owing something to Saving Private Ryan, has a rapid-fire grit that takes the breath away. At the same time, his performance shifts into scary-good mode as Waite's ghosts return to possess him. The pyrotechnics lead to the brief belief that Open Range might finish with a flourish. Unfortunately, the post-slaughter denouement returns to a languid drag, sucking the life out of the film as quickly as the gunfight juiced it up.

Open Range's deeper themes certainly have resonance, and credit Costner with refusing to bang us over the head with them. The notion of the fading frontier -- of men like Waite and Spearman belonging to a dying breed -- has potency despite its shopworn status. The film's best moments capture that wistful regret, resonating enough to carry it through more than its share of thin scenes. But as he has too often in the past, Costner can't differentiate between the meditative and the merely dull. His lack of discretion costs this project dearly; Seabiscuit conveyed in a single shot what takes Open Range 135 minutes to explain. Somewhere in there is a pretty good western. If only we could see more of it amid the ballast.

Review published 08.14.2003.

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