Open Range. Touchstone presents a film directed by Kevin Costner. Written by Craig Storper, based on the novel by Lauran Paine. Running time: 135 minutes. Rated R (for violence). Starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott.

Open Range

It has been said that Kevin Costner is at his best in sports movies (mainly baseball) and westerns. After Dances With Wolves and his latest western, Open Range, this statement has never been more true. And, while an overlong, drawn-out ending keeps the movie from reaching the lofty perch held by Dances With Wolves, it is stil a good motion picture, and will certainly please any western fan.

It's the late 1800's, and times are changing. The frontiersmen who once roamed the land are beginning to settle down, and the "Old West" is starting to disappear. In many towns, the act of free grazing, in which cattle are allowed to roam free and eat what they please, is looked down upon.

Two such free grazers, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), have roamed the plains for ten years. When they, along with their two apprentices, Button (Diego Luna) and Mose (Abraham Benrubi), reach a local town, they find that they're not welcome. The "owner" of the town, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), hates free grazers, and sets out to steal Boss's cattle. When Denton and the town's marshal, Poole (James Russo), attempt to kill Boss and Charley, things don't go quite as planned; Mose ends up dead, and Button is severely injured. Boss and Charley are unhurt, and they pledge vengeance against Denton and Poole. When they bring Button to the town's doctor, Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott), they meet Sue (Annette Bening), the doctor's sister. Doc is out, and Sue takes care of Button while Boss and Charley plan their revenge.

Open Range's greatest strength is it's two main characters. Boss and Charley are the heroes, but they're not entirely likeable, and they are not above killing, occasionally for not-so-honorable reasons. These mulitple facets of the characters' personalities lend them a degree of three-dimensionality not present in many major releases.

The climactic shoot-out is fantastic. Costner lets his camera hold on the action, never employing the fast cuts that plague all-too-many action movies. The violence is quick and brutal, and the blood looks exactly like it should. This is not romanticized movie violence - the shooters trip, they miss, and when they go down, they go down hard. It's as gritty a gunfight as has ever been committed to film. In short, it is work of bold, brutal art.

The casting is just right. Robert Duvall is wonderful; he explores every facet of Boss's personality so that we feel like we know the character. All of the character's emotions are there, whether expressed or simmering just below the surface. This is an Oscar-worthy performance. Costner's terse acting style perfectly fits Charley, a man who is not supposed to show much emotion. The character of Sue is underdeveloped as nothing more than a love interest for Charley, but Annette Bening fills the role with subtle facial expressions - she does a lot of acting with just her eyes. Michael Gambon makes for a wonderful hiss-and-hate villain. And the late Michael Jeter, as a helpful stage-hand, steals quite a few scenes.

Open Range feels like a return to the classic age of the american western. The cinematography is broad and beautiful, and the soaring, rousing score is great. After the failures of Waterworld and The Postman, some wondered if maybe the success Costner had with Dances With Wolves was luck, or a fluke. Open Range proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was those two unsuccessful films that were the flukes, not Dances With Wolves. It doesn't quite reach greatness, but it comes close. In a year full of vapid imposters, Open Range is a breath of fresh air.

© 2003 Matt Noller