To saddle up for a good Western, or nearly any Western, has become so rare that you might have a hard time finding your stirrups. But once you are saddled for Kevin Costner’s “Open Range,” you have to keep riding.
It is a wonderful Western, maybe a great one (such verdicts need to marinate a while). A touch long at 135 minutes, it is 89 minutes tighter than Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” in full form, and is a superior movie.
Craig Storper scripted from Lauran Paine’s novel “The Open Range Men,” and at the core of the story is the friendship, almost a sparring bachelor marriage, of the small-scale cattleman Boss (Robert Duvall) and sidekick Charley (Costner). They push beef across a prairie still not fenced (perhaps Montana but filmed in Alberta, Canada), and their bond of terse confidence avoids hidden truths — Boss’ lost roots, Charley’s deadly work in the Civil War (on which side?).
They draw closer once they lead their small herd near a town ruled by a nasty cattle baron, Baxter (Michael Gambon, with sneering Irish accent), whose thugs include a stooge marshal. The citizens are more cowed than the cattle. They are stunned when Boss and Charley, whom Baxter hates for free-ranging on his grass, decide to settle scores severely when one of their two cowhands is beaten and another, the Mexican teen Button (Diego Luna), gets severely wounded.
The action builds inevitably, then bites hard. “Open Range” has the three crucial things beyond horses, guns and landscapes that a good Western needs: actors firmly embedded in clear characters with strong motives; the tension of approach, by circling moves, to a fated end; the topping gun-down, here a complex death ballet of jumps and jitters and stunning bursts of firepower (the best, really, since “The Wild Bunch”).
Costner directed with a tangible love of Westerns. The details feel right. The action, given no real law on hand to help, makes sense. Not being much for dialogue haulage, Costner mostly stays quiet and listens to ace lines from the crunchy spittoon gob Duvall (“Before anyone gets killed, I got a hankerin’ to soothe my sweet tooth”); the old pro verbally whips a saloon into line and then, eyes twinkling at Charley: “What’d you think of my speech in there?”
The emerging sentiment of “Open Range” is that the range is too lonesome for Charley and Boss. They crave company beyond their own. So, hugely appealing Annette Bening is a firm, patient gal whom Charley courts sideways, so shyly that Gary Cooper was like a stud bull in a wedding shop. After the violent climax the movie tends to milk tender feelings, yet from the decent motive of giving us human closure.
“Open Range” has hooves deep in about a thousand Westerns, most obviously “Shane” and “Unforgiven.” Even less than Clint Eastwood an innate stylist, Costner still achieves a kind of stripped poetry, with an excellent feel for the land and the weather. Storper’s script, if a bit wordy for Western purists, is so strongly built that Costner can fill in the pieces with confident devotion, greatly helped by Duvall and straight-shootin’ cinematographer James Muro.
If you grew up on Westerns, which are now an old-time religion, “Open Range” is a ride you want to share. With Boss and Charley, all the way.
David Elliott is the movie critic of The San Diego Union-Tribune. © 2003 by the Copley News Service.