Open Range review by The Grim Ringler

You have to give credit to any filmmaker bold enough to make a new Western as, more than any other genre, the past looms very largely over any new films set during this era, so to make a Western is not only taking on the past but is also asking a lot of a modern audience which of late favors fast cars and over the top special effects to a slower paced story. Open Range is yet another in actor/director Kevin Costner’s growing body of work in this genre and proves to be a very well made, if slow, film.

Four men are driving a herd of cattle through the plains of late nineteenth century America, free grazing (which was basically having a herd that had no ‘home’ and feeding them from the land as you made your way from one end of the country to the other) in a time when it had fallen out of favor. Instead men built small empires of fencing that took up hundreds of acres and which they guarded as if it were gold. These men took on guns for hire to make sure no one forgot who owned the land between all that fencing, and to make sure no interlopers got too close. As the four men, Boss (Robert Duvall), Charlie (Costner), Button, and Mose are gathering the cattle together after a harsh storm they realize they will need more supplies for the next leg of their journey so they send Mose back to the last town they’d passed by to get the supplies and expect him back in a couple of days. When he doesn’t return they become worried and Boss and Charlie head into the town, guns in hand, to see what has happened to their man. What has happened is the hired men of a rancher who doesn’t take well to the idea of free grazers and whom had Mose attacked as a warning jumped Mose in the local bar. The warning is heeded, though not happily, and the three men, after Mose is fixed up, head back to camp to prepare for what they figure will be an ambush from this rancher’s men. They see how right they are when they arrive back at camp only to find four hooded men on horseback watching their settlement from the nearby hills and who disappear when approached. Boss and Charlie decide then that they’ll stop their ambushers before they can get the jump on them so when night falls they set out and find the four men at camp in the woods and set about disabling these men – but not murdering them – but find out too late that the ambush went on as planned and arrive at the camp too late. Mose is dead and Button is near death with a bullet wound a concussion. Knowing what awaits them in the town the two men, friends who admire one another deeply but who maintain the bounds of their boss – hired hand relationship, argue over what their course of action is to be, finally agreeing that the boy needs to be tended to and so they go back to the town to get him some medical attention. While there they make it known that they want and shall have justice for what has been done to their men and thus set the pieces in motion towards a final showdown that is easily one of the greatest shootouts in Western film history.

This is a very well made film, top to bottom, and you can see why Costner loves to make Westerns so often when his camera stares wistfully off into the open world that existed back then. As well as the film is made though you cannot get past a few issues that really bring the film down in the end.

The writing, while not bad, is not terribly good either. It covers issues covered in other films, and better in other films, and doesn’t even make much of the characters you are presented with save the nurse Charlie falls for but even her part is demeaned once the romance between she and Charlie begin. As soon as this romance begins the films starts to unravel as it takes the viewer out of the greater dynamic – the old west versus the new west – and really shows the lazy writing in a very unflattering light. I was also bothered by the use of slow motion towards the end of the film. When I say that this film has an astounding final gunfight I do not say that lightly. It is brutal, raw, and is as realistic as you could get without filming a real shootout I would wager. But towards the end of it Costner foolishly uses slow motion in an attempt to increase the tension but instead it saps the tension from the scene and makes you simply grit your teeth in frustration. Above all else though, I was particularly bothered by the lack of characterization or understanding of who these men are. Yes, we get some interesting talks between Charlie and Boss where you learn about the kind of men they are and what they stand for (there is a terrific scene before the shootout where Boss buys he and Charlie some chocolate and cigars which is really well done) but you never learn about who they are. You find out that Charlie was a hired gun earlier in his days and still carries the guilt from that but we don’t see that guilt, as we see it in Clint Eastwood’s face in Unforgiven, we can only hear that he feels guilty, which isn’t nearly as powerful. And the villain is so loosely sketched that when he and Boss have their final encounter you really don’t give much of a damn because at this point you accept he is a bad guy because we are told he is and he does the stock bad guy things. Not to unfairly compare it to a modern classic, but this is something Unforgiven nailed in that that villain wasn’t a bad man, but was a wrong man who misused his power and who used it to kill an innocent man. Hackman’s character isn’t a bad guy, but he becomes one. Here it is black and white, and that’s a shame as it takes some of the power of the film away.

This is an interesting story though and I wish the idea of free grazing versus ranching had been explored more deeply. It is a beautifully shot film and the vistas here take your breath away. The sound is pretty muted until you get to the gunfight, which sounds wonderful on a surround sound system. And I have to hand it to Costner for using the late Michael Jeter in the film because he all but stole the show for me as a stable master who is sympathetic to Boss and Charlie’s plight.

I applaud Costner in some of the things he was able to achieve with the film and for making himself a secondary character in it (though he IS the romantic lead, d’oh!) but I really wish he had given the script another polish and had made the romance more muted and less melodramatic. It isnt’ a bad western, though it is pretty slowly paced, but man alive, I cannot recommend this film highly enough if just for the gunfight at the end. Wow. If only the rest of the film had been as passionate and startlingly real.


7 out of 10 Jackasses
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