Open Range Review

Once a staple of American cinema, the Western genre has been relegated to the backburner in recent years, with only a handful of films qualifying as a horse opera. Years ago, three cinematic figures helped to define and shape the genre – John Wayne, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood – but sadly the days of their epic and operatic Westerns gracing the silver screen have passed into the sands of time.

In my mind the greatest Western ever made is Once Upon a Time in the West, showcasing Leone's superb directorial talent into an opus that encompasses the entire theme and morality of the 'Wild West'; decades later it remains one of the best films ever made, and not just in the Western genre. The last film that can lay claim as one that tries to capture even a fraction of their spirit and panache was Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992, showered with awards and acclaim, but a viewing experience that felt slightly stale and cold after the end credits had rolled.

Another modern filmmaker whose passion for the Wild West is evident from his filmography is Kevin Costner, the much-maligned star of films such as Waterworld and Message in a Bottle, yet he is in fact an Oscar-winning director who has made two acclaimed Westerns (Dances with Wolves in 1990 and Wyatt Earp in 1995). After carefully choosing his recent performances, ranging from historical drama Thirteen Days to comedy 3000 Miles to Graceland, Costner has again decided to plonk his behind in the helmer's chair and shoot a film that will hopefully resurrect the Western genre once more: Open Range.

A group of free grazers – Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), old-timer Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), young Button (Diego Luna) and wise Mose (Abraham Benrubi) – are four men trying to escape their violent pasts; driving cattle and living off the land on the open range: a place where nature makes the only laws. When a ruthless, evil rancher tries to run them out of town, the men's peaceful existence takes a tumultuous turn and they undertake a bloody quest for justice and vengeance…

Opening with long shots of a beautiful prairie, cattle and wagons slowly moving across the horizon towards a destination that is many miles away, the film announces itself immediately as homage to a genre of cinema that is primarily about the landscape that surrounds lonesome and inward-searching people. Fearing God yet indulging in acts of barbarism and violence against each other, many cowboys and inhabitants of the West were glorified killers, men (and women) who murdered simply because they had the means to do so. The first characters we meet on screen fit this bill: Charley Waite and Boss Spearman, men who are haunted by lives of bloodshed, but frequently find themselves oppressed by others and decide to once again resort to more violence.

As the history books say, the life of the free grazer is one that began with liberation and ended with oppression…when the West was open plains, unregulated by greedy landowners, people and their cattle could travel at will, but soon this balance was upset and barriers were put in place to restrict settlements and the journeys of others. Waite and Spearman, along with their other two companions, find themselves under such pressure by a local town, which decries free grazing and begins hounding the four. The violence that slowly escalates, beginning as mere bubbles under the surface, is again based on numerous accounts of life in the West.

It is evident from the opening credits that Open Range is not an epic Western that pits hoards of characters against an army; instead it is a slow-burning morality tale that focuses on the characters and not the action. Mixing grief, anger and comradeship, Costner's film is an intelligent and shrewd look at a lifestyle surrounded by looming buttes and lonesome plains. The love that blooms between Costner's Waite and Sue (Annette Bening), the sister of the local doctor, may feel slightly tacked on, but it's an honest response to danger: how would a man, under the constant threat of death, act upon seeing a kind and caring woman? They meet in unfortunate circumstances, but soon ride out the storm and emerge on the other side as a resilient force against the typical evil-doers in the town.

Robert Duvall, now in his 70s, steals the show from all, creating Boss Spearman as a veteran cowboy who mixes herding with fighting, all undertaken with style. His gravely voice and soulful dialogue show a tender man stuck in a vicious circle, supported by Costner's Waite who is a younger version of this battered – yet wise – man. Their care for young Button is wholesome fatherly love, something they frequently discuss and makes them feel "married", especially after such a long time on the open range together. The banter the two characters share is excellent, a product of good scripting and the aforementioned excellent performances.

The rest of the cast, including Annette Bening in another solid performance, add to this world which juxtaposes itself each and every second – they are capable of love one moment and sheer hate the next. Special mention must go to the late, great Michael Jeter, who makes a small appearance in this film as one of the free grazer's allies – as well as Michael Gambon, soon to be seen in the third Harry Potter instalment, delivers a fearsome portrayal of an Irish immigrant intent on small town domination.

Beautifully photographed and directed by Costner, the visual imagery is breathtaking (as it should be in any Western), but instead of showcasing vast locales throughout the two-hour running time, Open Range also focuses on smaller actions. It's this change in scope that distinguishes it from other Westerns and shows Costner's confidence and maturity as a filmmaker. The action-packed finale may satisfy those junkies who need a pay-off to complete their viewing arc, but for me the quiet resonance of the film is far more powerful than an array of bullets hurtling towards the protagonists. Sadly overlooked upon release, take this chance to catch up with an excellent drama, and very accomplished Western.

The Disc
Available on R1 DVD for some time now (its American cinema release was way back in August 2003), Universal are releasing a similar package now on these shores. Gone are the two discs that supported the former version, so how does this one-disc edition shape up?

The menus are animated well, although the bombardment at the beginning of the film's title does begin to grate after the sixth fly-past! Nevertheless, they are well designed and easy to navigate, with engaging music playing in the background throughout.

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image is pin sharp and without any visible compression signs, although one would expect such quality from a new release. The print is crisp and clear throughout, displaying the glorious open range in all of its vividness, with flesh tones natural and the visuals deep and well defined. All in all this is a superb transfer.

Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that is great in parts but slightly below par in others – the main problem is that the soundtrack is mixed too low, with dialogue sometimes muffled, so I had to spend a fair amount of time tweaking my sound system in order to hear the film at its optimum level. However, the surrounds are used well for the most part, and the LFE channel gets a superb workout at the end. If the front channels packed a bit more oomph and clarity then this would also be an excellent aspect of the package.

The main extra is an audio commentary by Kevin Costner, which is packed full of anecdotes and technical insight. He's an engaging and insightful speaker, and it's one of the best yak-tracks that I've heard in recent months.

A 12-minute featurette on 'America's Open Range' is a look at how the real cowboys lived in the 1800s, explaining how hard life could be. Narrated by Kevin Costner, it's an interesting look at the motives explored in the film itself.

12 deleted scenes are included, most with an introduction by Costner, and they are enjoyable to watch, although perhaps it was a wise choice to cut them – the running time is already fairly substantial (over 130 minutes), so more development isn't really needed.

'Storyboarding Open Range' is a slightly alternative extra in so much that it focuses solely on the work of the storyboard artist, instead of someone like the cinematographer. The storyboard artist explains how he worked closely with Costner during pre-production, designing the film as best as possible before filming took place.

Finally, a music video is included, which plays over a series of images from the film (although some footage is outtakes and B-roll). The song is fairly pleasant to listen to, but certainly nothing memorable.

A film that could turn the tide and encourage a regeneration of the Western genre, Open Range is a very enjoyable and intelligent film. Kevin Costner has clearly put his heart and soul into this project, and for that he deserves more kudos than usual. Standing up well to repeat viewings, I recommend this disc; however, as is sometimes the case, the transatlantic crossing of the DVD has resulted in the R2 disc losing both a DTS soundtrack and a 65-minute making-of documentary. If you have multiregion capabilities then go for the R1 2-disc edition, otherwise this Universal release will be perfectly sufficient.

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