Wildly uneven western
Open Range heavy on shoot-’em-up fun; light on drama
Kevin Costner’s Open Range is an odd mix—a sprawling, brawny western that has lots of time for conversation about hidden feelings and lost relationships. While it’s wildly uneven, the vigor of its outdoor action drama may be enough (for some viewers, at least) to override its flaws.
In a sense, this movie is at its best only when it’s content to be an old-fashioned shoot-’em-up. Violent action, rugged landscapes, and hard-boiled guys with horses and guns are still-familiar staples of the western genre, and Costner and company give them a brusquely loving sort of attention throughout this 137-minute drama. A cast headed by Robert Duvall helps too, although not as much as you might expect.
The basic story involves a wild west cattle war circa 1880, with free-range herdsmen Boss Stearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) pitted against a tyrannical cattle baron (Michael Gambon) ensconced in a rickety little frontier town. With Costner playing a cowpoke haunted by his gunfighter past, Open Range resembles Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but the results in this case are, at best, Eastwood-lite.
Craig Storper’s script (adapted from a Lauran Paine paperback) is full of little speeches about trust, respect, confidence, and emotional misgivings. The sub-Lonesome Dove friendship of Boss and Charley and Charley’s grueling romance with an inexplicably unmarried townswoman (Annette Bening) gravitate in an improbable direction—19th century characters possessed of late-20th century sensitivities—and Costner’s ambitious cowboy flick founders on an unlikely mixture of revenge tragedy and relationship movie.
It doesn’t help any that Costner’s scenes with Bening bear very little conviction nor that Gambon’s villainy never rises above clichà. Even the flinty Duvall lapses occasionally into trite gestures, and the best acting in the film comes in a secondary role—the late Michael Jeter as a bumptious liveryman. But so it goes in a production that veers between the wonderfully prickly sentiments of a trailside funeral oration and some rankly sentimental melodrama involving cute dogs.
From where I sat, Open Range was at its best in the very long, stop-and-start gunfight sequence which provides its climax but not its conclusion. That furiously orchestrated set of skirmishes, false endings, and whiplash digressions might have made a very good little B-western all by itself.