YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A straight shooter

Yes, you've seen this movie before -- but 'Open Range' still has its charms.

August 15, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Say what you like, think what you will, scoff if you have to (and you will definitely have to), but in the final analysis Kevin Knows Westerns.

Returning to the genre that won him Academy Awards for best director and best picture with 1990's "Dances With Wolves," actor-director Kevin Costner once again directs and stars in a western, one that is both potent and problematical. It's a film that is as focused and intense with action and setting as it is ungainly with emotion, that showcases Costner's Oscar-winning virtues as well as the unavoidable flaws that overwhelmed lesser films such as that misbegotten epic "The Postman."

Co-starring Robert Duvall and Annette Bening in a story of free-range cowboys matched against the dark forces of cow town tyranny and repression, "Open Range" exudes a strong sense of the mythical West, the wide-open spaces (beautifully shot in Alberta, Canada, by James Muro) where men have to do what men have to do and there are no lack of "things that gnaw at a man, things that are worth dying for."

Though it's the feature debut of writer Craig Storper (who based his script on Lauran Paine's novel "The Open Range Men"), "Open Range" is peopled exclusively by characters who will look like family to anyone conversant with venerable movie types. No one says or does anything unfamiliar or unexpected, but Costner and friends have invested so much belief in these hoary conventions that, to a point at least, it is pleasant to be in their company.

In this "Open Range" is helped by strong acting, especially among the principals. Duvall perfectly fits the role of cantankerous Boss Spearman, of whom it is said, "Old Boss sure can cowboy, can't he?" while Costner is effective as Charley Waite, someone with A Mysterious Past that does not involve quilting or putting up preserves. As for Bening, she brings an essential humanity and believability to the kind of woman who, Boss says, "makes a man want to set down roots."

Yes, they really do say things like that in "Open Range," a whole lot of them, for this is a film whose characters all talk like they've watched way too many Saturday matinee westerns. For all I know, people really did say things like "let's rustle up some grub," but by this point in time dialogue like that can't help sounding formulaic and cliched. If a line or sentiment can be hit on the head and hammered home, consider it done, so much so that you half expect the boys to break into a heartfelt chorus of "Don't Fence Me In."

That quality points up another problem with "Open Range," and that is its tendency to frankly worship Boss and Charlie, to treat them like Shakespearean kings in disguise or at the very least mud-splattered Round Table knights intent on passing on sacred wisdom like, "a man's trust is a valuable thing. You don't want to lose it for a hand of cards." While it's central to the film to make these men heroes who live by a vanishing cowboy code, "Open Range" is too conscious of the revered status of its protagonists to be completely creditable.

While all this makes "Open Range" sound all but unwatchable, the paradox of this film is that once its story manages to get moving, these problems matter less and less, and once the taut action of its inevitable climactic gun battle kicks in, they matter hardly at all. The rush of events combines with the acting and the sense of place to propel and validate Costner's efforts to a surprising extent.

On the trail together for nearly 10 years, driving cattle on a gloriously unfenced range, Boss and Charlie and their sidekick Mose (Abraham Benrubi) are breaking in a fourth member of the team, the young and rowdy Button ("Y Tu Mama Tambien's" Diego Luna). Circumstances conspire to force these men into the closest town, the inaccurately named Harmonville. With stores selling "Fencing and Barbed Wire" and the Michael Kamen soundtrack getting increasingly sinister, it's no wonder that Boss says, "I don't much like this place."

He doesn't know the half of it. Turns out the town's unsavory sheriff (James Russo) is under the thumb of a savage cattle baron named Denton Baxter (the excellent Michael Gambon), the owner of (you guessed it) "the biggest spread 'round these parts." A sworn enemy of free grazing, he didn't come all the way from Scotland to give away feeding rights to random drifters waltzing onto his range.

Harmonville, not surprisingly, chafes under Baxter's iron rule, but the town is too helpless and frightened to do anything about it, and that includes the comely Sue Barlow, who works as a nurse assisting her doctor brother. But when push comes to shove -- and you know it will -- Boss and Charlie are no turn-the-other-cheek pantywaists. If enforcing the Code of the West in 1882 means taking the law into their own hands, so be it.

Los Angeles Times Articles