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Open Range

 

Gen-X-Review-Open-RangeThe American continent is an enormously greedy land. Its fertile soil absorbs all stories into itself: Gunfights, romances, events so strange and mysterious that only a rock could keep quiet about them. The vast Western plains can forgive anything, even a movie so small that it could fit on the end of a matchstick.


Kevin Costner's Open Range is disappointing, not because it’s a terrible film, but because it isn’t as big as it could be. It retreats from its opening scenes like a man rolling up a large, red carpet, pulling everything back until only silhouettes and stick figures survive. Marching toward its violent vanishing point, Costner’s film disappears just as it should gather strength. Not so much simple as simplistic, the ending unravels in a series of empty gestures and rote ceremonies that feel both outdated and dishonest.


It didn’t have to be this way. Costner’s Western plains are awe-inspiring, and he certainly has an eye for details. The film opens in a valley so large that it bleeds off the edge of the screen. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and “Button” (Deigo Luna) live on the margins of this world, herding their animals through the huge white spaces on maps.
Free grazing their cattle far away from the confines of prairie towns, Spearman and his men honor each other and perform their mostly solitary tasks with quiet dignity. They live in tight confines with one another even as the landscape threatens to swallow them up.  It is as though the openness has made them value the best, most human part of each other, and although they disdain civilization, they are a very civil group.


The West resists meaning. Rivers run through the center of small towns and the huge landscape may unexpectedly shrink to a small, mucky island. The world is unpredictable, but ultimately fair, and the group accepts its sudden changes. One day it might be large enough to hide a herd of cattle and the next Spearman and his men might find themselves pinned down under a tarp, playing cards in a 10-foot square of muddy earth as torrents of rain floods the valley floor.


These men learn to persevere by living in close accord with nature, but after they’re forced near the small town of Harmonville they face challenges that do not exist in their world. The town marshal (James Russo) is owned by the largest rancher in the area, and free grazing is seen as a crime by these men, who want to fence off the West for themselves.


Boss is a man of principle, with secret dreams of settling down himself, and the small crew exists as an organic family. The residents of Harmonville, on the other hand, live under the tyrannical rule of Baxter (Michael Gambon), a sinister ranch farmer, and the community is a reflection of his authority: Upheld by power, wealth and prestige, a place where men follow money, not morals.


Boss is a leader because he has the personal integrity to lead; Baxter leads through exercising power, frightening the defenseless and corrupting those who would serve a higher law.


The film succeeds best when it’s exploring the relationships between Boss and his men or the contrary nature of the Western landscape. The town is paradoxically the least civilized corner of the West, and the movie does a good job in setting up the basic binaries between economic and organic interactions and uncovering the shady use of power.


However as the film lurches toward its inevitable shootout it loses its integrity. Waite is undoubtedly the least complex character in the film, but he increasingly becomes its subject, wrestling away control from Boss and the impressive scenery. The obligatory romance is unconvincing and the movie loses its focus as it adjusts primarily on Costner.


It has been cruelly suggested that Costner made a western so he could hide his balding scalp beneath a cowboy hat, but I don’t believe it for a second. I think he made Open Range to show that he could act even more stiffly than John Wayne.


Touché, Mr. Costner! Job well done, sir!


The fact is that Costner is the worst actor in the cast, and turning from Boss to Waite is the biggest mistake in what could otherwise be called a fine, little movie. Costner is an AM star, incapable of transmitting anything but the basic frequency of things. I understand that he believes he is interesting by virtue of his rugged good looks alone – don’t we all – but he really needs to understand his limitations as an actor if he’s going to star in movies he directs.


(I’m sure there are people who enjoy Costner’s acting, but there are folks who enjoy clam juice. I gather Costner is a similarly acquired taste.)


I will simply suggest that a person incapable of conveying emotions is likewise an unsuitable vehicle to build psychological tension, which is integral to Westerns. The romantic interchange between Waite and a seasoned actress who should know better (Annette Benning) totally flops, and Costner can’t even seem to develop rapport with the crew’s lovable dog. I spent the first twenty minutes of the film in terror thinking Duvall’s character would die, leaving every bit of screen time to Costner.


It was a moot point, since Duvall is eclipsed by the time the gunfight rolls around. So instead of Boss’ intriguing homespun wisdom about anarcho-cooperatives we get Costner, smashing down walls, shooting the hell out of maybe 30 bad guys, wooing the locals with his aforementioned rugged good looks...


Believe it or not, this gets grating, especially when Benning’s character confides in Waite that she’s not young anymore. Now I’m no Doctor Phil, but if a woman tells you she’s not young or pretty you had better offer some reassurances. Costner, who is not exactly in his prime himself, should take off his hat to expose his bald spot and say, “Well mam, neither am I” but instead he tells her that that’s okay with him. He doesn’t dig young, good-looking chicks anyhow. Or something like that.


Open Range is a fine, small film despite constant interruptions from its star and director. Costner is his own worst enemy, and his final creative act is unfortunately a disappearing act. It takes a sort of corrupt genius to create something so small from such big ideas.

 

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