Everybody knows the Western movie is a thing of the past, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from continuing to produce one or two Westerns every year. Most of the time it isn't worth the trouble. But every once in a while in recent times we've gotten a "Dances With Wolves," an "Unforgiven," or a "Tombstone." Thank heaven for Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner or the genre would be dead and buried on Boot Hill.
"Open Range," 2003, directed by and starring Mr. Costner, is a return to old-fashioned Western virtues, old-fashioned Western romance, and old-fashioned Western shoot-outs. It may not match the three more illustrious titles I mentioned above, but it strives mightily to be big, grand, and sprawling in the Western tradition. It's good to see a few of these large-scale Western epics still around, just to show us how entertaining they can be.
Not that we haven't seen everything in "Open Range" before, but for a lot of folks that is part of its charm. For older viewers familiar with the genre, the movie will be an agreeable throwback to the glory days of the Hollywood Western. For younger viewers, the movie may seem entirely new, so it's appropriate that novelist Lauran Paine ("The Open Range Men") and scriptwriter Craig Storper borrowed from the very best that Western fiction had to offer.
Costner and Robert Duvall star as a pair of free-range cattlemen, Charley Waite and Boss Spearman, fellows who graze their cattle on open range until bringing them to market. When the story opens they've been working together for ten years, cherishing the freedom of the wide-open spaces and the luxury of going where they want and living their own lives under the stars. But all that is coming to a close as the country is becoming more "civilized," and more and more free land is being bought up by ranchers unwilling to allow free-grazers to cross anywhere near their place, even though it was still legal to do so.
The little town of Harmonville, Montana, formerly Fort Harmon, represents the new West. It's run by a cattle baron named Danton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who's got an army of men at his command and the local marshal in his pocket. When Charley and Boss attempt to cross Baxter's territory, Baxter's men murder one of Boss's crew, wound another, and shoot Charley's dog. What kind of lowdown varmint would shoot a guy's dog? You can foresee the consequences. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And in the case of macho, loner, avenging Western heroes, that means fighting back. It helps that Baxter and his gang are very, very bad, indeed. So Charley and Boss wage war against the Baxter outfit, Boss vowing to kill Baxter and anyone else who gets in his way. Charley backs him up. To top it off, in town Charley meets a romantic interest, Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the sister of the town's doctor. She's not exactly the local schoolmarm, but she's close, and the situation is complete.
If any of this sounds familiar, it ought to be. As I say, borrow from the best. The movie's opening sequence evokes the sweep and grandeur of the Old West in the manner of John Ford's work or "Silverado" (in which Costner co-starred) or Costner's own "Dances With Wolves." Then, speaking of Ford, the plot of "Open Range" is straight out of "My Darling Clementine" and every other Wyatt Earp yarn. Just substitute Charley and Boss for Wyatt and Doc Holliday, and Baxter and his gang for Ike Clanton and his boys. There's even a climactic showdown in "Open Range" that takes place outside a livery stable and corral in what is noted as the year 1882, not coincidentally the setting for the real-life shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in 1881, which concludes every film version of the Wyatt Earp saga.
What's more, Charley and Boss enjoy the genial, humorously bickering camaraderie and male bonding of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Costner's usual earnestness and Duvall's gritty father figure play well off each another. Then, Charley reveals he's "got a history," a past he's not proud of, a past he's trying to forget, of killing men, lots of them. Shades of Eastwood's William Munny in "Unforgiven" or Alan Ladd's "Shane" before that. And to complete the picture, we've got the character of Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) reminding us of big Hoss in "Bonanza," and the citizenry of Harmonville undecided about who to fall in with--the villainous Baxter or the newly arrived free-grazers--setting up a conflict reminiscent of the one in "High Noon."
None of which is to suggest that the movie suffers from its being derivative. It's all a part of the Western mythos, Hollywood-style. My only quibble was with the film's length. At 139 minutes it's awfully long for the simplicity of its subject matter and could easily have had about thirty or more minutes lopped off without anyone's noticing. Fact is, the movie ambles along at such an indulgent pace, it seems for the first half hour in danger of slipping into a coma. It may be that director Costner was so eager to create another epic in the grand Western tradition, he momentarily forgot the narrative. Yet "Open Range" is no bloated "Waterworld" or "Postman," and I should think most viewers would quickly accommodate the leisurely tempo and enjoy the atmosphere and characterizations.
Still and all, the movie's shortcomings are neither here nor there. We've got what we've got. And what we've got is good enough to qualify for easy admittance into the Hollywood canon of Western lore. The scenery is gorgeous, the acting is uniformly excellent, and the limited action when it comes is intense enough to earn the movie an R rating. In all, "Open Range" is a cordial and welcome film with likable heroes, dastardly villains, and a rousing climax. It does nothing innovative, but it doesn't need to.
The beauty of the cinematography is matched by the beauty of the print and the merit of the transfer. The colors are mostly glorious, especially in daylight shots, and even in darker areas of the screen detail is clearly revealed. The ultrawide 2.17:1 anamorphic ratio Panavision scope helps enormously, of course, as does the film stock's fine grain, which adds a touch of realism to the picture's texture. About the only the minor drawback is that the image is slightly soft, nothing that high-definition wouldn't cure.
The audio reproduction is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS, the DD 5.1 I listened to being about as good as it could be. Transient response and dynamic impact are especially noteworthy, adding a highly effective element of realism to the gunshots in the final shoot-out. Surround sounds, too, are well executed, an extensive storm convincingly enveloping the listener in elements of rain and thunder. Bass is strong but not overwhelming; and tonal balance is neither too bright nor too heavy. It's modern surround sound at its most convincing.
Because this is a big film, Buena Vista felt it needed a big DVD presentation. Therefore, it gets the two-disc treatment. Disc one contains the feature film; an audio commentary with Kevin Costner; Sneak Peeks at other BV releases; and an unaccountably stingy eighteen scene selections. English and French are the spoken language options, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the major bonus attractions. The biggest draw is a sixty-four minute documentary on the making of the film, "Beyond Open Range." In it, Costner is surprisingly and refreshingly candid about the film's financing, and, of course, the documentary goes into great detail about the technical matters of the filmmaking as well. I was further surprised to learn that the film cost about half of what I would have expected, largely because of its being filmed near Calgary, Alberta, Canada, instead of the U.S. Even more fascinating to me was a twelve-minute featurette, "America's Open Range," narrated by Costner and others, that observes the people who forged and inhabited the real American frontier and the subsequent closing of the frontier by barbed wire. Next are twelve deleted scenes, about twenty-four minutes worth, that may be played separately or all at once and with or without on-camera introductions by Costner. Finally, there is a six-minute storyboarding sequence, followed by a four-minute music video montage. A slim-line keep case and an insert of chapter titles complete the package.
"Open Range" is sweet, sentimental, humorous, suspenseful, violent, romantic, romanticized, and just a little bit corny. It's firmly anchored in the time-honored values of good and right standing up to evil and might. After a slow start, the movie finds its stride. The more I watched it, the more I liked it.
Good prevails, and Doc Barlow gets plenty of business.