Film Review © 2003 by Trip Reynolds
Directed by Kevin Costner; Screenplay by Craig Storper based on the novel "Open Range Men" by Lauran Paine; Produced by Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts, and David Valdes; Executive Produced by Craig Storper and Armyan Bernstein.
Starring Robert Duvall (as the pseudo-curmudgeon, sage-like, proud, fair, idealist, romanticist, principled, and man's man, Boss Spearman), Kevin Costner (as the quiet, inwardly tortured, former sniper during the Civil War, former gunslinger, idealist, romanticist, proud, and principled loner, and Boss Spearman's top hand, Charley Waite), Annette Bening (as mature, worn, but still attractive and still unmarried sister of the town doctor, Sue Barlow), Diego Luna (as the sixteen year-old cowpoke apprentice to Boss Spearman's cattle crew, Buttons), Abraham Benrubi (as the affable, big and friendly giant of Boss Spearman's cattle crew, Mose), Dean McDermott (as the perfunctory town doctor and brother to Sue, Doc Barlow), Michael Gambon (as the evil, money-grabbing, land-stealing ruler of everything he sees and covets, Denton Baxter), James Russo (as the crooked town sheriff, owned and controlled by Denton Baxter, Sheriff Poole), and Michael Jeter (as the old, feisty, cantankerous and best pal to the underdog Boss Spearman and Charley Waite, the livery stable owner, Percy).
Less is definitely more. Here's a beautiful film that says a lot without too much dialogue which, since this is a film and not a book, is the advantage "pictures" can often (not always) have over words. The "moving pictures" tell the story quite dramatically. Every image in this film is carefully staged to present just the right value, just the right tone, just the right impact. Sure, we've seen old west towns in hundreds of movies, but when all the pieces fit so seamlessly as they do in this film it's appropriate and necessary to acknowledge first class work when you see it: art direction by Gary Myers, set decoration by Mary-Lou Storey, and costume design by John Bloomfield. The beautiful horizons, the rain, the mud, the buildings, the clothing, etc., all support the reality. Plus, the subtlety of the acting by all players gives the film a heightened reality that just pulls you right into the screen. Without question, as with his Academy Award® winning "Dances With Wolves," Kevin Costner really, really shines as a director. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the script either, in fact, it's rare to find such an seamless merging of words and pictures. All around, this is an efficient film and it doesn't waste your time with fluff. Film has a "no nonsense" direction and it works extremely well.
As with many westerns, the story is a simple tale of good versus evil, right versus wrong. In the classic western tradition the story captures the indomitable spirit of American freedom and justice versus the oppression of pseudo-totalitarian capitalists. The words "virtue" and "decency" and "honor" and "respect" easily come to mind and fill every frame of "Open Range." Oh, some Americans might be a bit jaded by the concepts behind the aforementioned words but, nevertheless, film captures the importance of these values during the old west, and yes, by analogy, these values have just as much importance TODAY!
Before the day of barb wire and fenced-in ranches it was common practice for independent cattlemen to graze cattle on "open ranges," which were not privately owned by anyone. Cattlemen with both large and small herds traversed thousands of miles of open ranges to take their cattle to market. Robert Duvall gives a very realistic portrayal of an independent cattleman, Boss Spearman who, along with his top hand, Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), have become aware of the changing times as they lead their cattle to what just might be their last trip through open range to market. The wealthiest local business owner and rancher, Denton Baxter, considers the "open range" a part of his property and hates all cattlemen who step foot on it.
With Spearman and Waite away from their camp handling some of Baxter's goons, Baxter had another group of goons to attack Spearman's camp and severely harm his two hired hands, a sixteen year old kid, Buttons, and the big and very affable, Mose. Since the local sheriff is one of Baxter's henchmen, Spearman and Waite had no choice but to seek their own justice. Along the way, in the midst of an upcoming gun battle, Waite and the sister of the town doctor, Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), strike-up a respectful and passionate but bitter-sweet romance. Like her male counterparts, Bening's Sue Barlow looks appropriately worn and weary while also looking virtuous, decent, and honorable. The chemistry between Bening and Costner works well as does their romance. When Sue's life became endangered by a gunman, the resulting intense and brutal scene with matter-of-fact violence delivered by Charley Waite is truly justice well served. Costner's shot selection in filming this scene was definitely on-the-money as we, like the townspeople surrounding Sue and the gunman, could only watch and wonder what Charley might do. Their last scene together clearly shows how Sue would still be her own woman - despite the male dominated times. Film builds to a climatic gun battle that looks and feels very real.
Costner's direction of "Open Range" is very reminiscent of Clink Eastwood's 1992 Academy Award® winning direction of "Unforgiven." This is meant as a compliment and not to suggest plagiarism. Plus, both men starred as quiet, inwardly tortured gunmen who wielded violence to exact justice. However, Costner's Waite is no where near as dark and deadly as Eastwood's Bill Munny for which Eastwood should have also received an Academy Award® for best actor. The performances of Bening, Costner and Duvall should all be remembered for Academy Award® nominations with, in particular, a nomination to Costner for best direction also. Plus, and this would truly be a long shot, a best supporting nomination should go posthumously to Michael Jeter [he died of complications from HIV on March 30, 2003] as the livery stable owner, Percy. Jeter's small and feisty stature as "Percy" was reminiscent of Walter Brennan's "Stumpy" in director Howard Hawk's 1959 film which starred John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, the western classic "Rio Bravo." Jeter's portrayal of Percy was the perfect counter balance to Boss Spearman and Waite but without being domineering!
"Open Range" is the classic European story of the proletariat versus bourgeois translated into the classic American version: cowpoke vs. rancher! Film is expertly directed Kevin Costner.
Film has an extremely watchable, evenly paced running length of 138 minutes.
Recommendation: An excellent film! See it!