A fading superstar directs and stars in a western that aims to deconstruct the glamorous myth of the Wild West. He plays a cowboy forced to confront the violent past he has tried to put behind him when killing becomes the only way to correct a serious injustice. The movie is released in mid-August and does surprisingly good business, giving said superstar his first real hit in years. Now – what movie am I talking about? If you said Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, you’re right. If you said Kevin Costner’s Open Range, you are also right. Yes, it is true that Costner’s new western is pretty similar to Eastwood’s western of over a decade ago; however, if you’re going to be reminiscent of another movie, you might as well make it a good one.
Costner plays Charley Waite, a so-called “free grazer” whose takes his cattle across the range in a time when the range was not owned by any one person or company. Charley works as part of a team consisting of Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi), and “Button” Weatheral (Diego Luna), who is still in his teens. The men drive their cattle from place to place, never bothering anybody.
When they ride into the frontier town of Harmonville, trouble finds them. A rich rancher named Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) basically runs the town. He is so rich and powerful that he even has local law enforcement in his back pocket. Baxter doesn’t take kindly to free grazers and tries to bully Charley and crew out of town. They refuse to go, and return the bullying to some of Baxter’s goons. Baxter orders another attack, which leaves Button badly injured and Mose dead. Charley and Boss know they have to fight for their right to remain on the range. They will also have to avenge the death of their friend, which means killing Baxter.
Meanwhile, Charley develops an attraction to Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the sister of the local doctor who is treating Button. They skirt the edges of a romance, but Charley (in a terrific scene) must eventually come clean to her about his violent past and his immediate future, which will also be violent.
Open Range has all the essential ingredients of a Western: good guys and bad guys, dusty frontier towns, people on horses, and a shootout in the last reel. It also has a lot of talk about the honor code that applied in the Old West (or at least in movies about the Old West). What’s interesting is that the film takes all these chestnuts and makes them work again, just as Unforgiven did.
You have to credit the actors in large measure for this. Costner, Duvall, and Bening are all A-list talents who have collectively turned in dozens of great performances over the years. They know how to bring dimension to the parts they play, which is certainly the case here. I loved the interactions between the characters. Charley and Boss have the same goal, but occasionally differ in their approach. Even at their most contentious, they display a respect for one another that comes from true partnership. The scenes between Charley and Sue are just as good. He loves this woman, but fears she won’t return the feeling knowing that he is going to kill again. There’s a stunning moment when Sue sees Charley kill one of Baxter’s men brutally. The way she handles that event speaks volumes about the kind of person she is and the type of feelings she has for Charley.
In fact, that final gunfight is really the highlight of the movie. It is one of the most realistic-seeming gunfights I’ve ever seen in a western. Too many of them are surprisingly blood-free; they are almost antiseptic. Costner has said in interviews that he wanted to make this one look real. There are dead, bloodied bodies littering the streets afterward. Innocent bystanders literally run for the hills. People feel bad about having to kill other people. The director accomplishes his goal admirably – the scene makes a gigantic impact. Adding to this is the fact that we become invested in the heroes, so we care about their survival. And – on yet another level – the gunfight works because Charley and Boss stop to think about what they are doing. When Charley points a loaded pistol at one of Baxter’s wounded henchmen, Boss stops him. We don’t really need to kill this guy, he says. It would be wrong to shoot an incapacitated man. Having them discuss things in this manner gives the movie a crucial moral center.
Open Range is a good movie that might have been a great movie had more detail been paid to Baxter’s character. Although well-played by Michael Gambon, he seems like a stock villain in some respects. The actor puts enough menace into the character to make you tighten up whenever he appears on screen, but Baxter’s motives are not as clear as I would have liked them to be. He resents free grazers, but we are never treated to an in-depth explanation for his hatred. He’d be a more interesting bad guy if we understood him at some level. Instead, he just seems like a rich bigot. The romance between Charley and Sue could also have used some additional development. Their attraction is immediate, but when Charley says the words “I love you,” it barely seems like they have known each other long enough to be professing their eternal love.
I am not traditionally a big fan of Westerns. One has to be really good for me to enjoy it. It has to take the old familiar elements and do something interesting with them. Unforgiven did that by telling a well-constructed morality tale. Open Range follows the blueprint and also succeeds. This is a story about avoiding the things that are wrong while still standing up for what’s right. An engrossing moral viewpoint combined with three solid star performances is more than enough to make Open Range one of the best of the modern day Westerns.
( out of four)
Open Range is rated R for violence. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat