Open Range (2003) / Western-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for violence

Cast: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna, Michael Jeter, James Russo
Director:  Kevin Costner
Screenplay: Craig Storper



It's been a while since Kevin Costner has been in a hit film, in fact, you'd have to go back to 1991's JFK to find one that wasn't considered at least a minor disappointment (notable exception: Thirteen Days, a supporting role).  2003 sees Costner taking the helm as director once again, and what was already a risky proposition only increases.  Costner's last directorial effort, The Postman, was a critical and commercial bomb.  Costner's last western, Wyatt Earp, fared no better.  With an actor starving for a comeback hit, this would seem like the last film he'd want to do.  Credit Costner for not only taking on seemingly insurmountable odds in audience expectations, but also delivering one of the better films of the year in the process.

Open Range takes us back to 1882, where free grazers and roaming livestock were beginning to give way to more traditional farming towns.  Property owners were beginning to look down on these free grazers, as they were seen as taking away good feeding grounds for their own cattle.  Robert Duvall plays Boss Spearman, head of a quartet of free grazers, with longtime partner, Charley Waite (Costner), at his side.  One of their new assistants, a big guy named Mose, goes into town and get in a bit of trouble, landing him some lumps and a trip to the local jail.  The town is basically run by a man named Baxter, who controls the local marshal, and doesn't take kindly to free grazers.  Mose is released on the condition that the men skedaddle, but Boss doesn't think it's right to not be able do what he's legally entitled to.  The decision is made between standing firm and running to save one's life, and the battle for what's right has begun.

Open Range is a slow but sure western, taking time to develop at its own pace and in its own way.  There is an offbeat quality to the entire production, not afraid to color outside of the lines if it feels like it, and it does feel like it often.  That's not entirely a bad thing at all, as the rough edges are the best part of the film, much necessary for a story that still conforms firmly within the conventional western mold.  There's a whole lot of character thrown in, and not your typical candy-ass good guys versus the heavy-handed villains, either.  The good guys are flawed by their own vices, trying to put the past behind them, but not above killing a man if they feel the situation merits a killing.  The corrupt marshal isn't bad because he wants to be, he just doesn't know any other way, permanently under the thumb of a powerful and unscrupulous boss.  In fact, only the love angle between Charlie and the doctor's assistant, Sue (Bening), feels like the stuff of formula through and through.

Although not without its share of flaws, the heart embodied in Costner's telling, based on the book, "The Open Range Men" by Lauran Paine, fortifies the backbone of the story well enough that we forgive the occasional lapses of judgment.  The movie probably could have been a little tighter in its editing, especially as it nears the end, where several satisfying moments would have been very appropriate to roll credits and leave us satisfied.  However, Costner is a romantic at heart, and lingers long in the final moments, as if he didn't want to leave the characters and places he loves so much.  Luckily, to a certain extent, we don't want to leave either, and aren't going to mind if there is a long goodbye.

Western fans, Open Range is must-see viewing, especially given the dearth of films in the mostly dormant genre for the past few years.  Even people who aren't prone to liking westerns will probably enjoy it for what it is, a movie about standing firm in what you believe and doing what's right even if the odds seem insurmountable.  You don't have do be a saint to do good things, and it's never too late to turn one's life around.  It's a rich film thematically, in a quiet way.  If the market were more favorable, I'd be content to see Costner direct westerns for the rest of his days.  Based on the amount of care and romanticism shown in Open Range, I suspect he wouldn't mind that at all.

2003 Vince Leo