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'Open Range'

Costner, Duvall poke through Old West

Friday, August 15, 2003

He sure can cowboy," the teenage apprentice known as Button (Diego Luna) exclaims admiringly. The venerable Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) has just returned after a solo roundup of animals scattered by a gully-washing thunderstorm that interrupted their free-grazing cattle drive across the countryside.


RATING: R for violence.

STARRING: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening.

DIRECTOR: Kevin Costner.


But that could be Kevin Costner speaking, too. The Old West certainly seems to push the right buttons for him, judging from his participation as actor and/or director in "Wyatt Earp," "Dances with Wolves" and "Silverado."

His new film, "Open Range," seems to luxuriate in the delineation of a 19th-century cowpoke's life, even as it reminds us that it was anything but easy. The leisurely opening sequences show Boss' four-man team enduring the weather, the physical labor, the dirt, the distances, the boredom and the dangers, both natural and man-made.

At the same time, they enjoy breathtaking vistas, rugged individualism, the freedom of the range, the camaraderie of professionals, a chance to overcome one's past, a code to live by.

That includes standing up for yourself and doing what's right, even at the risk of your life. Boss sends cowhand Mose (Abraham Benrubi) to the town of Harmonville for supplies. When the younger man doesn't return, Boss and his longtime partner Charley Waite (Costner) go in search of him. Turns out the rancher who controls the town, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), hates free-grazers with a deadly passion.

Baxter represents private ownership of land, wealth and power and the corruption that often accompanies them. He and his town foreshadow the onslaught of civilization, the settling of the West that will render men like Boss and Charley and their way of life obsolete.

Any number of westerns have addressed these themes, and as "Open Range" lopes along at its own deliberate pace, we wonder what Costner and first-time screenwriter Craig Storper (adapting the novel by Lauran Paine) plan to do with them.

Not enough, as it turns out -- the movie's parts turn out to be more than the whole.

"Open Range" is gorgeous to look at, the Alberta scenery captured in all its splendor by cinematographer James Muro. The acting is solid. You can't go wrong with Duvall in a western, recalling his magnificent Gus McCrae from "Lonesome Dove." Costner blends the weariness of the trail with regret for his unsavory past. Annette Bening quietly commands attention as Sue Barlow, sister of the town doctor, eschewing makeup and the artifice sometimes evident in her performances.

Costner defies convention to good effect in some scenes. When Boss and Charley enter a saloon, for example, the place is oddly quiet, without the jaunty piano and whooping drunks and winking barmaids of the usual horse opera. People are playing cards, but no one's accusing anyone of cheating.

The movie's climactic gunfight is thrilling and brutal -- no elegiac slow motion and not much honor on either side. Charley shoots first and gives no quarter.

But for all the time Costner invests in introducing us to these characters and their lives, he never seems to get to the point. The apparent theme, the changing of the West, becomes subsidiary to the showdown of Boss and Charley against Baxter. But did it really have to come to this? We don't know, because Baxter is drawn as a one-dimensional villain, snarling and nasty.

Charley knows such men all too well, it turns out. But we learn of it much later than we should. Boss has his secrets, too, it turns out. And what of Sue? How did she end up here? Once again, the movie doesn't tell us enough. Button turns out to be less of a character than an example. And this is one of those movies in which the death of a dog seems more tragic than that of many men.

By film's end, Charley shows himself capable of being just as ruthless as Baxter and his henchmen. But it doesn't seem to change anything. If the open range was all about possibilities, "Open Range" doesn't take enough advantage of them.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at or 412-263-1581.

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