Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rewind: Open Range - A New-fangled Western...with a Familiar Formula

 a couple of days I'm going to cover the new western 3:10 to Yuma and have a sit down with Russell Crowe, Chrisitan Bale and the film's director James Mangold (who, I found during an interview for another film with Joaquin Phoenix, talked the actor into playing Johnny Cash opposite Reese Witherspoon while having dinner with Joaquin and the Man in Black, himself)...the premise of this newer Western got me wondering if the genre itself had run it's course...I had similar thoughts a couple of years ago when I covered Open Range which, it turns out, even though Kevin Costner got lampooned by some for shooting it, starring in it, etc... I liked it and seeing as the source I reviewed it for is defunct, I thought I'd repost what I wrote because I think it's worth seeing and I still feel now the way I did then about the film and the genre itself ....

...Just when it seemed like this summer’s cinema would be overrun with teen-bopper one-week wonders starring the usual Tigerbeat cover models, Kevin Costner returns with the old fashioned shoot’em up Open Range. The storyline is simple enough: four cattlemen (or free-rangers) drive their herd across the 19th Century American prairie only to encounter a ruthless landowner who doesn’t take to kindly to their ilk and wants to put them in a dirt-nap. After one of their crew gets brutally beaten by a gang of dirtbag lackeys at the general store, action ensues. All of this is standard horse-opera faire but this is a film directed by Kevin Costner so you know it’s gonna be a long one, 2:15 long to be exact - Giddiyap.

The group of free-rangers consists of Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Costner), Button (Diego Luna) and Mose (Abraham Benrubi). It quickly becomes clear that the quartet are a tight knit extended family with all of the potential infighting that that would entail – a newer take on the timeworn home on the range cow poke persona. This wandering set of saddle bums are salt-of-the-earth types just trying to make their way in a word that’s learning to settle down so subterfuge is inevitable.

As the film flows, Costner’s portrayal of Charley comes off as what John Dunbar might’ve morphed into had he left Ft. Sedgewick on the wagon with Timmons in Dances with Wolves. Robert Duvall has brought the masses a wide variety of characters throughout the run of his long career on stage and screen. From Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now) to Compton (Colors) to the consigliere (Godfathers 1 and 2). Duvall’s turn as Boss Spearman is as textured as the craggy squint lines around the corners of the actor’s eyes. Boss is a composite of all those earlier Duvall characters tempered with age that settles like a fine wine – either you got it or you don’t and dude has got more presence in his pinky than entire casts of other projects out on the market.

In the middle of the film Costner’s direction begins to backslide toward his more maudlin tendencies (a hint of the Postman) but he soon regains footing and moves the storyline on as Charley and Boss saddle up and head into town to do what they gotta do. On their way, the longtime friends continue evaluating themselves (and their place in the changing world) as yet more layers are peeled off to reveal what makes them tick. The cowboy as an effusive conversationalist? The gun-slinger who upchucks at the thought of doing battle? These are a few more of the director’s revisionist twists on the classic western archetype but they work well here. At one point in the film, while talking to Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), Boss likens his relationship with Waite to that of an old married couple without one scintilla of sarcasm – Gold. These characters are not ten feet tall and bullet-proof which is why their realness radiates off the screen and bounce off the walls.

Annette Bening fits snugly into the role of Miss Barlow, the assistant to the town doctor who the free-rangers must visit on several occasions to get patched up – she and Charley eventually become attracted. Their romance is just a footnote, however, because the real meat and potatoes are the way that Boss and Charley lock horns with the wily landowner, Baxter (played by Michael Gambon) and the town sheriff (James Russo) who’s in Baxter’s watch pocket. Baxter is colder than a witch’s tit and the role of horse-town heavy is taken beyond Lee Van Cleef proportions but again, this direction feels appropriate given the setting. The supporting cast offers a memorable workout from the late Michael Jeter who plays a cantankerous (yet hilarious) livery stableman who befriends the main characters and Luna (Y Tu Mama También) has a couple of moments throughout but Duvall is clearly regulating at this particular ro-deo – look for the scene where they tell each other their real names...

Kevin Costner’s direction of Open Range points to both Sergio Leoni and Clint Eastwood (the marquee poster even looks like a knockoff of the latter’s Oscar winning film) but in the end it is clear that this film is all Costner’s. By reviving a genre that had gone the way of the buffalo, the actor/ director/ producer has brought an end to a ten year creative (and commercial) drought. Costner’s back on the trail and riding tall in the saddle – if you see it in a bin at your video store or it's not in your NetFlix queue, give it a whirl; put it on the list and check it's actually better than a lot of the tripe that's being released as "new"...

Studio: Touchstone Starring: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi, Michael Gambon, James Russo and Michael Jeter Director: Kevin Costner Rated: R

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