OPEN RANGE

Directed by Kevin Costner. USA. 2003.


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Kevin Costner's Open Range is an old-fashioned Western that does not break any new ground but does provide solid entertainment with some fine performances, especially by Robert Duvall and Annette Benning. The film is replete with all the appropriate attributes of the genre: a wealthy rancher that has the town terrorized, the corrupt lawmen who do his bidding, the kid who lost his parents, and the good guys who only kill because they have to. Based on a novel by Lauran Pain and a screenplay by Craig Storper, the film works when Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is the focus, but stumbles toward the end when his partner Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner) takes centre stage. Costner, whose career has been in free fall since Dances With Wolves, turns in a workmanlike performance but his air of weighty solemnity undermines the film's energy, especially in the love affair between Charlie and the doctor's sister Sue Barlow (Annette Benning).

Set in Montana in the American West in 1882, Boss belongs to a dying breed of cowboys whose way of life is simple, yet authentic. He moves with his herd through the open West, allowing his cattle to feed wherever his travels take them, sometimes on land claimed by big business ranchers. His traveling group includes Charlie whose been riding with him for ten years, the heavy-set Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and a sixteen-year old boy they call Button (Diego Luna). After Mose does not return from an errand, Boss and Charlie ride into the town of Harmonville and find nothing but trouble. Mose is in jail and they are threatened by the town marshal (James Russo) and a menacing Irish-American landowner named Baxter (Michael Gambon) who actively dislikes free-grazers, though we never find out exactly why. 

After freeing Mose, their camp is attacked by thugs hired by Baxter. Mose is killed and young Button is seriously wounded. Boss and Charlie bring Button to the doctor in town and vow to exact revenge and, in the process, to clean up the town from Baxter's pernicious influence. Both Boss and Charlie hint of troubled pasts and, as in Unforgiven, the film is a paean to their redemption and the end of an era. Charlie is the silent, sensitive type who does not show much emotion or even crack a smile for the full length of the film. Boss exudes kindness as expressed in his concern for his wounded men. He says that an excessive amount of violence puts them on the same level as the Baxter boys and he would take the chance of future harm rather than kill someone unnecessarily. 

His fight is over principle. "Cows is one thing," he says, "but one man telling another man where he can go in this country is something else." After the good guys who moralize about killing do their killing anyway in a well-executed showdown, Open Range neatly ties up all its loose ends and its upbeat message leaves us with little ambiguity to ponder. Boss' character and values lift the film out of mediocrity but its undue length and persistent grimness test our patience. Open Range has some nice moments that pay tribute to the rugged individualism of the prairie but, sadly, it also glorifies its eye-for-an-eye vigilantism that dares to call itself justice. 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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