Dances with beef
What I am about to tell you can be deciphered in several ways. The message may be that the man who galloped as the title character through the unintentionally comic The Postman and unflinchingly drank his own filtered urine as the gilled Mariner in Waterworld is a great actor. It may mean that this same man simply does not know the difference between the silly and the sublime. Or, it may mean absolutely nothing at all. Nonetheless, it has been 17 hours since I sat through the panoramic Western aptly called Open Range, and I am still mystified about how star and director Kevin Costner kept a straight face as he told a fellow saddle rat: “Let’s rustle up some grub.”
If Costner is going to make any more movies as alternately good, bad, ugly and handsome as this revenge saga, then maybe a new popcorn box is needed in this nook of the paper, for guilty pleasures. Even though I am a veteran Western junkie, I hesitate to call Open Range a good movie because of its intermittent cheese factor. It blatantly milks its canine cast member for cheap emotional wallop and is littered with clunky dialogue that stops the film dead in its tracks. (For example, “Boss sure can cowboy can’t he?” “Yeah. Broke the mold after him.”)
Yet Open Range is still a mostly embraceable film about freedom, pulling one’s own weight, earning respect from peers and mentors, honesty, loyalty, grudges, justice, revenge, redemption, love and attitudes about God. That’s certainly a full saddle bag of themes, but Open Range spreads them evenly throughout two hours and 15 minutes of Old West myth-making with a sense of measured homage to all other Westerns that punched cows and slapped leather before Open Range.
The film begins in 1882 with eye-popping vistas as four men free-graze the smallest herd of beef in the history of Hollywood throughout an area of green mountain and valley expanses (shot on location in Alberta, Canada). Crisp, fresh, Disney-blue skies ooze from the screen. Rain and a lightning storm approach, and the men erect a canvas canopy for shelter. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is the group’s hardened, patient patriarch. Charley Waite (Costner) is his right-hand man. They are two brooding Marlboro men with no hankering for city life. Mose (Abraham Benrubi) is a gentle giant, and Button (Y tu mamá también’s Diego Luna) is a greenhorn. We soon discover that they are all escaping troubled pasts.
Mose, a sort of illiterate, working-class Hoss Cartwright, is sent to the small town of Harmonville for supplies. When he doesn’t return, Boss and Charley ride after him. They find him in jail, beaten to a pulp. Local rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) has a grip on the town and literally owns Sheriff Poole (James Russo). “Folks hate free-grazers more than they hated the Indians,” says Baxter, which sets the stage for countryside skirmishes and a suspenseful 20-minute showdown in town.
Costner certainly knows his way around a Western. His portrayal of the hyper gunslinger Jake in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado was pitch-perfect, he starred in the title role in Wyatt Earp, and his Dances with Wolves picked up both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Here, his performance is best described as unobtrusive, but his direction, especially during the final bloodbath, shows the same remarkable eye for detail, as well as the grit and elegance that made Wolves so involving.
Duvall chews on his role like a familiar plug of tobacco, acting as Mother Hen in spots to his two trail hands (“My God, if you’re gonna pick your feet like a monkey, then do it downwind,” he tells Button) and stoically nurses buried emotional wounds. His speech in a crowded cafe at one point effectively turns a plea for united decency into a call to arms, and he brings to the role of Boss a convincing inner power rather than blatant physical swagger.
Open Range is a film in which “dying for a cow is one thing; telling a man where he can go in this country is another.” The script is a mess that sometimes skids from hokeyness to holiness. Boss and Charley share their real names with each other for the first time before entering into a gunfight in which they are severely outgunned. Charley saves a dog from drowning in a rain storm that has turned Main Street into a churning stream. And his romance with Sue (Annette Bening) is simple-minded.
Open Range is about cowboys who have life all worked out, “’cept for the part where we don’t git killed,” and who let what they’ve done and what they’ve been inform what they still can be. “You might not know this, but there’s a thing that gnaws on a man more than dying,” says Boss. And Open Range, if nothing else, makes it clear that this statement is especially true for people who have already faced hell here on Earth.