Costner Recaptures His Earlier Magic With "Open Range"
Review by Kam Williams
In 1990, Dances With Wolves swept the Oscars, garnering statuettes in seven of the 12 categories for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. That old west epic, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Blake, told the fictional tale of a Union soldier, assigned to a remote outpost after the Civil War, who went AWOL from the Cavalry only to assimilate with more noble Sioux Indians. Its star, Kevin Costner, was showered with nearly unanimous critical acclaim for his brilliant performance and for making a most impressive directorial debut.
Costner also received the only Academy Awards of his career for his work on that opus, and nothing he has done since, either in front of or behind the camera, has generated any further Oscar consideration. Instead, the hunky heartthrob seems to have regressed, directing himself in two of Hollywood's most notable financial fiascos, namely, Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997), which lost more than $200 million combined.
You might think that after all that red ink, he'd have a hard time finding a studio willing to front the money for his fourth directorial project, but the good folks at Disney decided to greenlight Open Range, another Western set in the late 19th Century. And Kevin delivers, relying on the popular theme of the encroachment of civilization upon the freedom of the carefree cowpoke with less and less room to roam.
Well, one thing's fer sure, pardner, Kevin Costner knows how to make a terrific Western, for Open Range represents the best example of the genre since..., well since Dances With Wolves. Unfortunately, the misleading macho marketing campaign for the movie is likely to dissuade the distaff side of the demographic, for the well-saturated TV commercials imply that the picture's only an old-fashioned shoot 'em up targeted at males.
But Costner, as cattle rustler Charley Waite, plays a complex, calloused though sensitive soul, a man simultaneously tough enough to shoot an ornery hornswoggler right between the eyes, one minute, and compassionate enough to rescue a drowning dog from a raging flood, the next. Or better yet, he's sufficiently in touch with his feelings to woo the Barlow woman (Annette Benning) who happens to be the only attractive female for miles around the tiny town of Harmonville.
Superficially, the storyline reads like a stock, bad blood feud between rival gangs building up to a big showdown. On one side, we have Charlie's free-rangers, the good guys in the proverbial white hats, a quartet of cattle-drivers led by the jut-jawed Boss (Robert Duvall). Their philosophy might be distilled down to the lyrics of "Home on the Range." Thus, they want to make their home "where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play."
This doesn't sit well with the landowning bad guy, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who comes outfitted with a goon squad and a corrupt sheriff, to boot. Even though the script is riddled with cowboy cliches like "Howdy!" and "Much obliged," the dialogue is delivered with such conviction that you never really question its corniness. For this, we have to thank the stellar cast, headed by Oscar-winner Duvall (for Tender Mercies) who has that rare ability to elevate the most mediocre of material.
Virtually all the movie was shot on location in Alberta in order to take advantage of the big sky panoramas provided by the captivating expanse of its rugged terrain. As for interior sets, there's the bar, a jail, a barn, and a blacksmith, staples of the pioneer town. But the cinematography is at its best when it stays out of doors. Kudos to Kostner for fashioning a deliberately paced action film that doesn't have the infuriating urgency of a video game. While equally paying homage to directors Peckinpah, Eastwood, and Kurosawa, what makes Open Range special is that it's a love story, too. And one peopled by endearing characters we're inclined to care about when the bloodletting has finally ended.
Excellent. Rated R for action violence featuring frontier justice.
end of review.
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