Open Range (7)

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley


 Kevin Costner has a reputation for long, boring movies.  I didn’t see Waterworld, but I still become almost comatose remembering sitting through the trailer for The Postman.  But you got to give it to the guy.  He’s got Chutzpah.  He makes another long, talky movie, and he casts himself to co-star with Robert Duvall (Boss).  The story, which is sort of a neo-High Noon, pits “open range” cattle drivers, who would let their cattle graze anywhere, which was the Common Law of England and was adopted in most of the United States, against ranchers who owned their graze land and fenced it off.  The year is 1882.  The locale is unknown, identified as the “Old West,” but I’d guess Wyoming.  Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) is the rancher who runs the town and tries to drive Duvall and his herd away, killing one of Boss’s men, prompting Boss and Charley Waite (Costner) to seek revenge.  Normally I would be philosophically aligned with the rancher, who bought his land and didn’t like “open range grazers” to use his land to graze their cattle. Doesn’t that make sense?  Why should someone else be able to bring his cattle onto someone else’s land to graze?  Alas, here he’s a villain.

 In addition to defending what appear to be the wrong people, Open Range has some basic flaws.  For one, Costner’s character, Waite, is impossible.  Nobody with his background, having done what he’s done in a Union Civil War outfit that sounds a lot like Quantrill’s Raiders (a Confederate band of killers in Kansas who marauded and killed in cold blood anyone they could find who might be a Union soldier or sympathizer; Jesse James and the Younger Brothers were members), could be the person portrayed in the movie.  Nor could anyone with a character like Waite’s win the love of a woman of high character like Sue Barlow (Annette Benning)…and so fast…and with so little exposure!

 Then there’s Costner himself.  I’ve seen him in many movies and he’s always Kevin Costner. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Kevin Costner.  He seems like a nice guy.  But whether he’s Eliot Ness, or looking for a message in a bottle, or a cold-blooded killer, he’s always, well, Kevin Costner. As Dorothy Parker said of Katherine Hepburn, he runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

 Then there’s the “love interest” between Waite and Barlow.  They have one conversation that lasts for about two minutes and fall madly in love; maybe because they’re the only two people in the town who look like movie stars.  The sad part of this is that, apart from the love interest, the movie looks pretty authentic.  The clothes, the town, the storm…all look like they could have been that way in 1882.  You can almost smell Costner’s filth as he lopes around.  However, there sure seemed to be a lot of people living in this small, one-street town.

 Finally, there’s one scene involving Sue Barlow that’s so laughable it reminded me of a scene from The Great Race, where Tony Curtis walks through a pie throwing fight in an immaculate white suit.  Pies are flying all over the place. They go over and around and under Curtis.  But when the fight’s over, his white suit is as clean as when the fight started.  The problem is that in The Great Race the scene is meant to be funny.  In Open Range it’s meant to be deadly serious.

 Too bad, because this is an involving film.  Although it’s Costner-long, at 2 hours 15 minutes plus (published running times vary from this to ten minutes longer), for me it didn’t drag.  There is a lot of talk, but I felt that the tension built throughout into the climax.  Although we’re told that there are only 8 gunmen against Waite and Boss, it seems as if they’re shooting at everyone West of the Pecos except Wyatt Earp. 

 There were other things I liked about the film.  For one thing they didn’t seem to be using partial loads to keep down the noise of gunfire.  When someone fires in the climax, it sounds like a real gun.  I really enjoyed Duvall.  Playing against the glacial Costner, Duvall gives a powerful performance as a tough, rough-edged cattle herder.

 Despite all my criticism (hey, that’s my job!), and notwithstanding its mushy ending, the last ten minutes of which are so out of sync with the rest of the movie they look like they were added later in response to women’s comments in previews, I enjoyed Open Range.

 August 16, 2003

 The End