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Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Shootin' up the box office
There was a point -- probably somewhere between "Bad Girls" and "The Quick And The Dead" -- where I felt like I never needed to see another western. And there was definitely a point -- somewhere between "Waterworld" and "The Postman" -- where I knew I didn't need to see any more of Kevin Costner.
This week's review, then, is a case of eating some serious crow. "Open Range" features both cowboys and Costner, and it ain't half bad. It's a film with virtually no surprises; you can count the genre cliches piling up like scouts on a schoolgirl in Shibuya. But despite its utter conservatism, it does what it does exceptionally well, kind of like a '90s Bob Dylan album: all craft, less inspiration, but still worth a spin.
Set in 1882, "Open Range" captures that period of history, beloved of filmmakers, where the rugged individualist lifestyle of small-scale ranchers and cowboys was giving way to ruthlessly monopolistic cattlemen and rail barons. (See "The Hi-Lo Country," "All The Pretty Horses," et al.) Costner, who also directed the film, taps into the western's most enduring myth, that of the loner who stands up and fights for what he feels is right, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming force arrayed against him.
Disney went that route lately with "The Alamo" and rode it all the way to box-office disaster. "Open Range," in contrast, had a long and profitable run, possibly due to its avoidance of ponderous posing and pomposity. Costner plays it low-key and down-home, trying to get beyond the John Wayne bluster and show us the grim reality of what it means to pick up a gun in anger.
Costner plays Charley Waite, a tough, taciturn cowhand who works for Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall). Charley's tough to get to know, since he's trying to bury a violent past that he's not very proud of (a clear echo of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," the best of the '90s westerns). But he's rock-solid in a tight situation, as Boss and his fellow cowboys, Button (Diego Luna) and Mose (Abraham Benrubi), soon learn. Their idyllic life grazing cattle on the open range is threatened, in no uncertain terms, by one Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), a greedy, power-hungry SOB who has the biggest herd in the area and claims all the land as his personal fiefdom.
Baxter sends some thugs to intimidate Boss and his crew into abandoning their herd and running. They fight back, with some restraint, but Baxter's boys reply with lethal violence. The law's no help, as the local sheriff (James Russo) is in Baxter's pocket. Boss realizes that it's him or Baxter, and that he'd rather go down shooting than turn tail. "It just sticks in my craw," growls Duvall, who brings some real dignity and authority, even to lines like this.
Charley warns Boss what he's getting into, but agrees to back him up, and reveals he knows a thing or two about pluggin' varmints. The two cowboys confront Baxter and his gang in the nearby frontier town of Harmon, setting the stage for a real high-noon showdown.
It's here, in a tensely executed 20-minute shootout, that "Open Range" really shows off its chops. This is no walk-down-the-middle-of-the- street-with-guns-blazing kind of deal. Charley and Boss wake up early, buy some expensive Cuban cigars ('cause they figure it could well be their last smoke) and make an actual plan. They know their odds aren't great, but they aren't planning on getting killed through silly heroics. The townspeople all flee for the hills (a nice touch) and when the violence erupts, it's sudden, chaotic and savage. Costner gives us a strong sense of the real risk taken by his characters, and how real the possibility of a bad end could be. We never feel that these cowpokes are larger-than-life heroes, so it makes their stubborn courage all the more admirable.
As an actor, Costner's going with the sort of liberal warrior he loves to play, the ethical, tenacious loner who triumphs over the vast, rightwing conspiracy, be it in "JFK," "Robin Hood" or "Dances With Wolves." He continues to blend a gruff "What's wrong with BO?" machismo with a shy sensitivity and paternal protective instinct when it comes to the ladies, a combination that has won him legions of female fans. The man knows what he likes. But give him credit for a confident, restrained performance here, undercut with a dark, violent edge.
It's only in the romantic scenes, when Charley falls for the town doctor's sister, that things feel a little bit too much like Costner doing Costner. But at least with Annette Bening, he has an actress opposite him with about as many lines etched in her face (both are fortysomethings), while many actors of his age seek to flatter themselves with younger starlets.
Then again, it's this very determination to show what a nice, decent guy he is that turns off many of today's more cynical moviegoers. Whatever.
If any sort of earnest gesture makes you cringe, vote Tarantino. But what more can you ask for from a genre flick than memorable characters, a story that keeps you hooked and an explosive climax that's well worth waiting for? Well, OK, a bucket of popcorn.