Open Range

Open Range

directed by Kevin Costner

starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon


Borrowing elements from such masterpieces as Unforgiven and The Cowboys, actor/director/producer Kevin Costner has crafted a Western that, while not an instant classic, is nevertheless a damn fine tale of revenge and romance.

Essentially, Open Range is the kind of nail-biter shoot-em-up in which the vast majority of the violence occurs in its later chapters. You know that the bad guys are going to get theirs, but how, and when? And, more importantly, does your hero take a bullet in the process?

Open Range is set in an ambiguous and gorgeous stretch of upper Western land (Montana? Wyoming? It was actually filmed in Alberta’s Stoney Indian Reservation), at a time in the late 19th century when more and more cattlemen were erecting fences on their property and/or regarding nearby Federal lands as their own; these actions and attitudes put them at odds with “freegrazers,” cowboys who fed their herds on long, meandering drives to market.

Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is one such “freegrazer.” The gruff but ultimately good-hearted career cowboy is on one of his last cattle drives, leading a small outfit — the even sterner Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), chuck wagon cook Mose (Abraham Benrubi, from TV’s ER) and cowboy apprentice Button (Diego Luna, Before Night Falls). While on a solo supply run to nearby Harmonville, Mose is assaulted in the general store and jailed; apparently the local land and cattle baron, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), with the town Sheriff in pocket, doesn’t take kindly to freegrazers. When Spearman and Waite come to collect their battered comrade, they’re warned to pack up and hit the trail… or else.

Spearman, who lives by the unwritten, respect-based code of the West, has had enough of such men. Unfortunately, his subsequent actions — and a raid by Baxter’s goons in his and Waite’s absence — has tragic consequences. From that point on, Open Range is enveloped in High Noon-style suspense. The tension causes some character-revelation between Waite and Spearman; it also leads to a romantic spark between Waite (whose previous relationships with women have obviously been limited to the one night, cathouse variety) and physician’s assistant Sue Barlow (Annette Bening).

Like boxers circling the ring, Spearman, Waite, and Sheriff Poole (James Russo) prepare for the inevitable, with a shades-of-Unforgiven nighttime downpour adding to the menace. Spearman, clearly no stranger to firearms, is more than ready for a fight; however, Waite has an even deeper understanding of gunplay’s ugly reality. The cowboy quietly measures angles and calculates possibilities as the old friends tread the elevated, windswept sidewalks of Harmonville. Included on their travels are a couple of visits to the doctor’s — and brief, touching encounters with Sue Barlow, who has stoically been harboring a loneliness in her heart for many years.

Apart from his masterful direction, one has to give credit to Kevin Costner for not playing Kevin Costner — Waite doesn’t give grandiose speeches or express overwrought consternation, as many of Costner’s previous characters have. Even those who lack an appreciation for his career will have to admire the man’s subdued, Alan Ladd-like portrayal of a man with a secret, violent past. Robert Duvall, who has gotten his second or third wind in recent years, is superbly endearing as a determined trail boss; Michael Gambon is absolutely wicked as Baxter, a man who the whole audience will want dead by the film’s last act. At her charming best, Annette Bening gives her character more dimensions than Westerns usually allow. Adding flavor to the ensemble is Michael Jeter, who as stableman Percy comes to the aid of our heroes in the final showdown.

On the surface, Open Range is hardly an innovative Western — its influences are obvious from beginning to end. However, the film’s nuances, subtleties, romantic subplot and admirable avoidance of gratuitous, comic-book bloodshed make for a completely engrossing movie that deserves more than one viewing.

Open Range:

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