Open Range Review

Kevin Costner's third film as director, Open Range is a two hour build-up to a gunfight. It's made clear from the beginning where the story is headed and Costner wisely never tries to pretend otherwise. Most movies try to persuade us they might deviate from the formula they're obviously going to follow to the letter and few convince us for a second. Instead, Costner lays his cards on the table from the start and opts to do what Quentin Tarantino did with Kill Bill and M Night Shyamalan did with Signs, which is have fun with the genre's conventions and develop the characters and the situation in interesting and unexpected ways.

This is a triumphant return to form for Costner, who has taken more criticism than most stars over his twenty-year career, some of it deserved. After the enormous promise of the late eighties, when he made four great films - The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field Of Dreams - in less than two years, and the superstardom of the early nineties, Costner fell spectacularly from grace with a string of flops. His second directing effort, The Postman, bombed loudly and his last film, 3000 Miles To Graceland, went straight to video in the UK like a Van Damme flick. The occasional Tin Cup or Thirteen Days notwithstanding, many had written him off. Open Range sees him put his mistakes behind him and remind us not only of Costner the charismatic movie star but of Costner the confident, gifted director of Dances With Wolves.

The film begins at a quiet, deliberately lazy pace, introducing us to four working cowboys who are moving a herd around the plains of the Old West. They're open rangers, men who own livestock but no land and whose animals graze on the free, unclaimed prairies. As we watch them going about their everyday business, riding, keeping a watch out for strays, playing cards, squabbling sometimes, we get to know them. Their leader is Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), a good-natured old-timer who's shunned civilisation for a simpler life outdoors. His fiercely loyal right-hand man is Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), a man with a violent past and a good few demons still left in him. Then there are Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna), a couple of young cowhands. Mose is a lovable, shambling lug while Button is a street kid of barely sixteen who the others have taken in mostly out of kindness, though he's yet to earn their trust and respect.

Slowly the story unfolds. Mose is sent to the nearest town, some distance away, for supplies. He doesn't return. Leaving Button to guard the wagon, Boss and Charley ride after him. They find their friend beaten and bloody in a jail in Harmonville, a town seemingly run by wealthy cattle rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). It was a fight with some of Baxter's men which landed Mose in a cell. Sheriff Poole (James Russo), a weak and corrupt man, claims Mose started it but Baxter, sitting in on the meeting, makes no secret of his hatred for open rangers and intimates that if they don't move on, something worse will happen. Boss decides it's best to avoid trouble and, after Mose is taken to the local doctor, the three men ride back to their camp, where they find their herd being watched by hooded men on horseback. It's clear Baxter means to steal their cattle and either frighten them off or kill them. This isn't something they can walk away from.

At the centre of the film is the relationship between Charley and Boss, who are onscreen together in almost every scene and are played exceptionally well by Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. Costner has always excelled at playing tarnished heroes. Prior to this, his best work as an actor was as the hot-headed pitcher in Bull Durham and the fugitive in A Perfect World. For my money, Charley Waite is the most impressive character he's created. This is a subtle, insightful portrayal of a dangerous man who wants to do good and who is capable of devotion to his friends and tender feelings for a kind local woman (Annette Bening) but whose strongest instincts are to kill and do harm. All that keeps him on the right path is the influence of Boss.

Robert Duvall has the quieter, less showy role, though he gives no less admirable a performance than his costar. Boss has seen enough of life to be wary of violence and he avoids it when he can. He acts as a father figure to Charley and does his best to rein him in, notably in a powerful scene where Charley is determined to finish off a wounded thug and even Boss looks scared of him. Duvall has played mentors in other films (his underappreciated work in Days Of Thunder comes to mind) yet he never seems stale. He has a great scene towards the end where he knows he and Charley may shortly be dead so he takes him to the town store for cigars and chocolate. The rest of the cast are fine. Some may find Michael Gambon over the top as an ageing Irish bully boy but based on what we learn and can infer about the character, he made the right choice.

The depiction of the West is interesting - for a start, it's green! Costner shot Open Range in Alberta, Canada, on rolling grassy plains. Although rain has been used in westerns before, memorably in Unforgiven, Open Range demonstrates the damage weather could do to a hastily-constructed frontier town. We wonder why Charley and Boss are laying down planks over pools of rainwater, then we realise the rain has gouged holes in the mud deep enough to drown a man. Costner has fun with little details like that. He knows the genre well, knows that we know it and he enjoys playing with our expectations. A key confrontation takes place not in the saloon but in the town café. His heroes devise an original, if unsportsmanlike way of thinning out their opponents' numbers. And as the gunfight approaches, Charley grimly tells Boss from experience how it will go down, who will die first and how the others will react.

Everything leads up to the climactic gunfight which, when it comes, is harrowing and exciting and has an air of authenticity about it. Its opening is a shocking and darkly funny moment and what follows is as confused, brutal and sporadic as a real-life western shoot-out must have been. There are no rules here and there's no gentlemanly conduct. Costner the director handles the action extremely well. And when it's over, the story doesn't end and the survivors don't ride off into the sunset, they have to deal with what they've done and decide how their lives should continue. In many ways Open Range is a very simple tale - cowboys get on the wrong side of a mean rancher, they stand up to him, there's a big shoot-out - but from those elements, Kevin Costner and screenwriter Craig Storper (working from a novel by Lauran Paine) have fashioned a thoughtful, complex and completely gripping film. After the wonderful Lost In Translation, it stands as the second great movie I've seen this year.

Overall

9

out of 10

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