Open Range

Simple yet rewarding tale of friendship and honour authentically steered in from the Wild West

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 25 Mar 2004 by Craig Eastman
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Who said the Western was dead? Long abandoned by most film makers, every once in a while a new tale of the Old West ambles into town, ties it's horse up at the Coral and starts a gunfight over a game of cards. The benefit of the genre suffering such a dearth is that when something with a six shooter does come along it's almost always worth the wait. Unforgiven? Tombstone? Dances With Wolves? Sound as a pound mate. Add to the list Open Range, the latest directorial offering from He who is responsible for the latter, Kevin Costner. A fervent exponent of the values of that bygone era, Costner spares no horses when it comes to placing his cactus-strewn vistas and the inhabitants thereof on screen, and here once again his obvious enthusiasm has paid off extremely well.

A simple tale, as most of the genre tend to be, Open Range shares it's theme with classics such as Once Upon A Time In The West, chronicling the difficult period that marked the passing of the Cowboy era into the world of today. Costner plays Charley Waite, an ex gunslinger and now right hand man to Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), a cattle free-grazer and one of the last of his kind to still travel the open plains of the American West. Also in their crew are two young recruits, the burly Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and a carefree Mexican boy called Button (Diego Luna).

In a time when freegrazers were becoming extremely unpopular with increasingly wealthy and irritable landowners, the group find themselves set upon by a gang of rustlers working for Irish immigrant town owner Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). After a minor altercation that lands Mose in the care of the corrupt Sheriff Poole (James Russo), Boss and Charley make it clear they have no intention of conceding to strong-arm tactics. Shockingly, Baxter responds by sending a hit team lead by pro gunfighter Butler (Kim Coates) to attack the grazers, killing Mose and leaving Button fighting for his life.

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Being the upstanding men they are, well aware of their constitutional rights and all, Boss and Charley decide it's about time Baxter, Poole and all their cronies ceased such frankly unsociable activities and collected the wages of their sins, and nothing says "you're fired" quite like a bullet or six. Along their righteous path they meet a few friendly townspeople who share their contempt for Baxter, most notably local medicine man Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott) and his sister Sue (Annette Bening). As their destinies become intertwined, Sue and Charley begin to unravel a little of each other's pasts, unearthing Charley's roots as a man haunted by his deeds as a young soldier in the Civil War. As the emotionally reclusive cattlehand begins to open up however, events in town spiral towards their violent climax, leaving the viewer uncertain as to wether this will be a movie with a happy ending or a Winchester originated sting in it's tail.

Simplistic it's story might be, and indeed it'd be fair to say it's also far from original, but there are a good few reasons why Open Range remains a rewarding viewing experience. On every level and from every square inch of film, this movie oozes with the care and attention only a labour of love can deliver. Costner's passion for the period is obvious from the onset, and the man clearly has both an eye for authenticity and the kind of knowledge born from sheer enthusiasm. On it's most basic level, Open Range is immediately stunning in the cinematography that captures the true scale and beauty of the open American countryside that Boss and Charley call home. For all they find themselves hip deep in mud and up to their ears in rain, Costner and cinematographer James Muro make you wish you were there with the grazers, so beautifully shot are the proceedings.

Similarly the attention to detail in costume, set and general production design place this effort right up there visually and historically with the best the genre has to offer. Michael Kamen's score is also worthy of mention, maintaining just the right atmosphere whilst remaining inconspicuous enough not to overwhelm the events on screen, as can so often happen with movies of this ilk. The pacing here is suitably satisfying also, events slowly building to a loud and suitably brutal climax with not a single gunfight until the final reel. Those seeking a Tombstone-style shoot-em-up take on the genre will doubtless be disappointed, but those of us that appreciate a little character on the slow burn will find the performances counter the general stillness very nicely. The scripting too is of a sufficiently high standard to warrant mention, and indeed artistically speaking there is little of note to pick fault with in the production as a whole.

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The only accusations one can really level at Open Range are that the story feels a little tired, exploring little thematically that can claim to be new, and the level of performance is disappointing in that although above average, it doesn't quite match the grandeur and scope of the rest of the movie. As reliable as one can expect Duval to be, as Boss he doesn't quite ignite the spark required to compensate in a situation where for once Costner seems happy not to hog the limelight. Able support comes from the likes of the late Michael Jeter as Percy the wily old stable owner, but Bening for one feels criminally underused in a role that fails to reach it's full potential. There might also be a few moments where Costner's direction meanders a little, falling a little short of the epic momentum carried by Dances With Wolves, but by and large the boy done good, delivering an incredibly authentic experience and a tale of honour and friendship that is often genuinely affecting.

At the end of the day, Open Range does come across as just a little bit flat, but that's only because it's standing in the shadow of such genre giants as Once Upon A Time In The West and Unforgiven. Happy in it's sedate pace and relative lack of violence, Costner's latest is more concerned with authenticity and loving recreation of an age gone by than it is with flashy gunplay and chewing on cheroots. In that respect it can hold it's head up as high as any other Western one can think to mention, and as such marks a rewarding return to form for a man who was once in danger of becoming the laughing stock of Hollywood.

There's nothing here to convert those who were never going to appreciate it in the first place, but for those of us who are either fanatical about all things wagon related or simply open to good old fashioned story telling and beautifully crafted artistic values, Open Range represents a suitably fresh breath of air straight from the rolling plains of old. "Yee", and in no small measure "Hah!".

From his hiding place atop a bale of hay in the Old Barn, Disko pokes his rifle out long enough to award this movie 4 out of 5 smoke wagons.

Kevin Costner
Cast list:
Robert Duval (Boss Spearman)
Kevin Costner (Charley Waite)
Annette Bening (Sue Barlow)
Michael Gambon (Baxter)