In 1882 the Wild West was still the one place where a man could be free to drive his cattle across the land unhindered and unharmed. But, civilization, and its corruption, has arrived and four honest, hard-working cowboys must face the tyrant of a frontier town if they are to keep their “Open Range.”
Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is the elder of the quartet of cowboys as they move his cattle across the abundant and free grazing land of the old West. His right-hand man and ten-year companion Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) is a taciturn wrangler with a violent past and he’s good with a gun. Chuck wagon driver and cook Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and teenaged Button (Diego Luna) round out the rough living little group.
Facing an especially long time and tough conditions before they come to the next, faraway town, Boss sends Mose back to the not-too-distant Harmonville for essential supplies while the remaining three continue their journey, allowing Mose a couple of days to make the round trip. When double that time goes by, and fearing bad news, Boss makes the decision that he and Charley retrace their young companion’s steps. He reluctantly leaves inexperienced teenager Button to watch the wagon and the herd.
When Boss and Charley arrive in Harmonville they are greeted by the owner of the town’s stables, Percy (the late Michael Jeter) who seems to be the only one willing to talk to the free-range cowboys. The hostile town sheriff, Poole (James Russo) and the real lord of the land, Irish rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), are holding Mose prisoner for disturbing the peace and other infractions. The gentle cook, Boss and Charley are told, started a fight in the general store, did much damage and broke one of his four opponents’ arm. Boss knows that it was Baxter’s henchmen that started the fight, hating the free-range wranglers for intruding on their land.
They take the badly beaten Mose to the local sawbones, Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott), to get patched up. Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) assists the doctor and extends her household to the strangers while they wait for their friend. Charley is bowled over by Sue’s beauty, poise and manner but won’t intrude with another man’s wife. Once patched, Boss and Charley guide Mose back to their camp and everything seems OK until they notice a quartet of masked horsemen watching them and the herd. Fearing that Baxter is planning to stampede the horses, Boss decides to make a preemptive strike on the masked men, getting the drop on them and leaving them without guns, pants or horses.
They arrive back at their own cam, thinking that the problem is solved, only to face a badly injured Button, Mose, dead, shot through the head, and the camp’s beloved dog, Tig, killed, too. Boss and Charley must first get aid for Button, struck in the head and shot, and head back to the town and to Doc Barlow’s once again. Only Sue is there, though, as the doctor is at Baxter’s ranch, ironically, patching up the aftermath of the ambush on the masked men. Sue gets down to business and treats the boy’s wounds herself. Boss and Charlie head into town in the torrential rain to try to figure out a way to get justice against Baxter.
As they try to cross the flooded streets in the torrent Charley saves a puppy dog from drowning and earns the good will of one of the town’s honest citizens, whose young daughter owns the dog. Boss and Charley accept the man’s hospitality at the local café where they are confronted, once again, by Poole. The gauntlet is thrown and the open range wranglers, their numerically superior opponents under Baxter, and the Harmonville townsfolk prepare for the coming battle - the climax that is the heart of “Open Range.”
Director Kevin Costner once again uses a western locale, this time with the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop as opposed to the Great Plains of his Oscar-winning “Dances With Wolves.” Utilizing Craig Storper’s original screenplay the helmer/star tells an old-fashioned western tale with good guys, bad guys and a town that finally strikes back against tyranny. The noble strangers who arrive in town have the most honorable intentions but represent an intrusion into the fiefdom imposed upon Harmonville by Baxter. The battle of right versus wrong that ensues in the film’s climax is beautifully choreographed, abrupt, violent and complex as it unfolds.
Costner does a solid job behind the camera and has the good sense to keep his on screen character, Charley Waite, as the strong silent type. He gets the girls but he leaves the center screen to the masterful Robert Duvall. The senior actor imbues the character of the American cowboy into Boss Spearman and gets to give some nice speeches on integrity, friendship, the great outdoors and life and Duvall never makes it seem like speechifying, just talk. Costner keeps a step back and lets Charley’s quiet nature, violent determination and intelligence in battle come out. The complexity of the relationship between Boss and Charley feels like something developed over years of living together, day in and day out, and doing their job. At times, even at the height of tension, a word and an _expression between the two conveys volumes.
Annette Bening does a competent, believable job as Sue Barlow. She is a modern-thinking woman who made a life choice that would ensure her spinsterhood – until Charley comes into the picture. Sue is a strong, capable woman who will face any challenge that comes along and Bening’s performance reminds me of Jean Arthur in “Shane.” Diego Luna, as Button, and Abraham Benrubi, as Mose, are likable, full dimensional characters and fit in well as the younger half of the quartet of trail drivers. The late Michael Jeter gets to do some good character acting as supportive Percy. Michael Gambon is only fair as the head bad guy and his Irish accent winks in and out. The townsfolk are also given some character and are more than just background.
Techs are first-rate throughout this sprawling western. James Muro does a wonderful job capturing the spectacular Canadian scenery (subbing for Montana), the under-construction town and the action of the climactic showdown. Production design, by Gae Buckley, provides the frontier-town-under-construction look very well. John Bloomfield’s costuming has the right worn and sturdy look for the cowboys’ clothing and a general 1880’s kind of feel all around. Music score, by veteran composer Michael Kamen, has the sweeping scope of the western vistas.
“Open Range” is the first “big” western since Clint Eastwood’s own Oscar-winner “Unforgiven.” Whereas the latter film was a revisionist view of the Old West, Costner’s film is steeped in the tradition of John Ford and the great westerns of the 40’s and 50’s. I give it a B+.
Freegrazer Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his long time second hand man Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) run into the type of trouble that threatens their way of life when they send Mose (Abraham Benrubi, TV's "E.R.") into the nearest town for supplies. Harmonville is ruled by Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon, "Gosford Park") and his corrupt Sheriff Poole (James Russo, "Donnie Brasco") and they intend to deny the legal right of freegrazing in their jurisdiction. Disgusted at their injustice and the harm that has come to Mose and young Button (Diego Luna, "Y Tu Mama Tambien"), Boss decides to fight for the "Open Range."
Kevin Costner returns to the genre that won him a directing Oscar with 1990's "Dances With Wolves" and once again proves he knows his way around the Western. Costner tends towards humorless earnestness for his romantic American hero, but he has the good sense to pair himself with the gruffer, glinting irreverence of old pro Duvall.
Boss and Charley ride into Harmonville to discover what has happened to Moses and learn from stable owner Percy (Michael Jeter, "The Green Mile") that he got into a fight with four men in the country store. They find him in Poole's jail badly beaten and take him to Doc Barlow's (Dean McDermott) and Boss sees the attraction between Charley and the Doc's 'wife' Sue (Annette Benning, "American Beauty"). They head back to camp but Boss suspects that Baxter will send men to steal or drive away their cattle, so he and Charley attack first, but by the time they get back to camp, Mose and Tig, Charley's beloved old dog, have been killed and Button shot, left for dead.
Mose has a paternal relationship with his men and insists on taking Button, a fifteen year old homeless boy they've taken under their win, back to the Doc, but he's away tending Baxter's men so Sue steps in. In town, Charley saves a pup during a flood and gains a friend in Mack (Peter MacNeil), its owner, in a town that has been ordered to reject the freegrazers. Boss has a showdown with the Sheriff in the saloon, telling the townspeople of the corruption and murder Poole and Baxter engage in, and the die is cast for a shootout. Charley learns that Sue is not the Doc's wife, but his sister, and the attraction becomes bittersweet as he may be facing death the next day.
Screenwriter Craig Storper adapted "The Open Range" by Lauran Paine and it's an ode to the end of a way of life and the dying breed of the cowboy. The middle aged romance works nicely as a metaphor for last chances and endings, and Boss's back story is a sad account of the promise of better days. Boss says 'Cows are one thing, but one man telling another where they can go in this country is another' and the statement sums up the Americanness of the Western genre. Storper gets at the difference between how men interact with men as opposed to women through the openness or lack thereof of language and physically symbolizes it with a china tea set.
Duvall gives a terrific performance as a good man with a gruff exterior. He's able to get a chuckle with his pithy remarks without crossing the line into twee and he gets at the kindness and decency of the man with such simple gestures as pushing a piece of chocolate on the shopkeeper who just sold it to him. (He has overused his old man's tic of worrying his teeth with his tongue though.) Costner defers to Duvall without losing his own presence and gets at the core of the tarnished hero, although he still needs to turn down his nobility meter. His romantic chemistry with Benning is nicely restrained but felt. Benning is strong as the woman willing to speak up for what she wants, although some explanation of why such a striking woman would be the town spinster may have given her more to work with. Benrubi is a likeable presence in his short amount of screen time, making Mose's demise count. In his last role, Jeter is amusing as the freegrazers' ally, if perhaps a bit too jumpy. Gambon doesn't bring much dimension to his villain other than greedy entitlement, but Russo gets into the skin of the oily opportunistic sheriff.
Director Costner and his filmmaking team of production designer Gae Buckley ("Tin Cup") and newbie director of photography James Muro have created a visually masterful work on location in Alberta. The green and blue beauty of the hills and plains is contrasted with the dark wetness which envelops the town that would deny the freedom to work the bountiful land. Costner and Buckley acted out the climatic shootout, which engages the entire town, in order for Buckley to design the town to meet the demands of the shootout, which includes Percy acting as a lookout from the stable's second floor, the Sheriff's jail, the saloon and other buildings. We feel the pain and the dirt and the wood and the steel of the thing, just as earlier we're given a good sense of the hardships of cattle driving.
"Open Range" suggests that Costner is a better filmmaker than actor, but as long as he's shaping his own material he's made a welcome return to the screen.
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