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The Wild, Mild West

 

Open Range

Kevin Costner, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.4

 

 

Posted: August 22, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Ahh, the American West. In its untamed wildernesses and its barely tamed outposts of civilization, the West embodied the essential components of the American character: the questing spirit, the thirst for opportunities and new beginnings, the heroic imposition of law and order on a chaotic and unpredictable landscape. It's exactly this West that forms the setting of Open Range, Kevin Costner's return to the fertile cinematic and thematic landscape of his Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves. It's the 1880s, and the West is still a tabula rasa, a never-ending sea of verdant prairies, rolling valleys and panoramic skies.

But if Costner's gorgeous vistas evoke the era's sense of limitless possibilities, his movie rarely grazes on its field of dreams. Instead, like a cowboy herding cattle, it slowly but insistently nudges a standard-issue plot along its well-worn course. That plot involves a pair of veteran cowpokes, taciturn Charlie Waite (Costner, in full, brooding Gary Cooper mode) and crusty Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall). Charlie and Boss are "free-grazers" -- that is to say, men who own cattle but not land, on a more-or-less eternal cattle drive across the landscape to a nameless but presumably known destination (somebody's eventually going to buy these cows, right?). Turns out free-grazers aren't looked kindly upon by those who own land, as the cattle of the former feed on the property of the latter without the latter having anything to show for it.

Such is the case with a rancher named Baxter (Michael Gambon), a selfish baron so cold-hearted and villainous he lacks only a handlebar mustache to twirl. While camped out close to a small frontier community, Boss and Charlie send their gentle giant of a hired hand, Mose (the likable Abraham Benrubi, of E.R. and Parker Lewis Can't Lose), into the town to stock up on supplies. Baxter, who pretty much owns the town, has the sheriff's men rough Mose up something fierce, and when Boss and Charlie come to collect him, he issues a thinly veiled threat, all but writing down the time and place he's planning to have his men ride out to the free-grazers' camp to wipe them out (presumably, as a lesson to other would-be itinerant moochers with the moxie to graze upon some small portion of his land for a day or two).

Sure enough, blood is soon shed -- those low-down varmints even kill Waite's adorable little dog! -- and the embattled free-grazers are forced to seek medical attention for their wounded charge, an awkward adolescent known only as Button (Y Tu Mama Tambien's Diego Luna). This leads them back to town, to the local doctor and his tough, capable and sensitive sister Sue (Annette Bening). Being the kind of upright men who always pay their way and never back down from a fight, Boss and Charlie are obliged to exact revenge against the sneering Baxter, and the stage is set for an inevitable showdown, staged in an agreeably inexorable and prickly fashion.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to notice the rather obvious symbolism of this boilerplate formula: Charlie and Boss are free-grazers, all right, grazing on the dew-speckled pasture of freedom itself, and Baxter, in his one-dimensional, Snidely Whiplash fashion, is the Big Bad Wolf of Progress, slowly fencing in the great frontier, the better to bring it under his iron hand. But while it's refreshing that Costner doesn't beat us over the head with this theme, it's also frustrating that he pretty much ignores it altogether. The closest we get is when the two cowboys first ride into what passes for the town, a stock movie set that looks all of two streets long, complete with the frame of a house under construction (symbolizing progress, of course).

What Costner does focus on are the grand, larger-than-life signifiers of epic Westerns. His narrative unfolds with a ponderous gait; our first glimpse of the cowboys' herd thundering up the plain is accompanied by a dramatic, lusty score. Most of all, Costner zeroes in on the classic cowboy code through the prism of Charlie, who embodies every familiar ten-gallon cliché. Charlie's a good man, yessir, who can't abide cheating at cards; the kind of man who, upon tracking clods of earth into the home of Sue and her cipher of a brother, gathers them all up into his hat. As essential as these traits are to cinematic cowboys, they quickly grow tiresome in Charlie, who can't stop brooding over a troubled past as a kind of commando/assassin during the Civil War.

Charlie also drags his spurred boot heels in his romance with Sue, which feels as obligatory as a shoot-out: In a puzzling, extended post-climax coda, he's compelled to ride off into the sunset, away from his friends, the woman he loves and the town he's just liberated, to shake off the freshly-stirred demons of his restless past. This is no doubt supposed to hammer home for us the weightiness of Charlie's inner turmoil, but its unintended result is to try the audience's patience.

But if Costner lingers too lovingly over the brooding-cowboy archetype at the expense of the story's in-built social commentary, he does deliver a raft of satisfying performances (his and Gambon's being the exceptions, but even those have their redeeming moments). Most notably, Duvall invests Boss with a gruff amiability, never slipping into crusty caricature and even occasionally winking at his familiar orneriness. And the late Michael Jeter impresses with the slight but strangely nuanced role of a sympathetic stable owner who backs the heroes in their showdown with Baxter and his Central Casting band of henchmen. For all its heavy-handed homage to the classic cowboy icon, and the short shrift given its central themes, Open Range is nonetheless a satisfying oater, floating on the easy camaraderie of its leads and the gratifying melodrama of its final showdown. If it doesn't gallop triumphantly to its finish, it certainly executes plenty of crowd-pleasing tricks along the way.

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