Open Range

Like a crystal ball, the first scene in Kevin Costner’s western “Open Range” predicts what is to transpire. From a distance, we see a herd of cattle kicking up a thin blanket of dust as they amble through a beautifully framed and backlit valley.


The establishing shot says a lot about “Open Range,” a straight-forward, no-nonsense western that kicks up a little dust every now and then to reassure us that the characters haven’t succumbed to the film’s deadly dialogue.

Costner’s last traditional western “Dances with Wolves” bucked box office tradition and became a critical and audience favorite, winning Costner Best Director and Best Picture (as co-producer) Oscars. It would be nice to say that Costner is back in form with “Open Range,” just as it would be nice to say that cigarettes and chocolate actually prolong life, but that’s not going to happen.

If anything, “Open Range” will shorten your life, by at least two-hours-and-eighteen minutes. The good news is that you won’t cough up a lung. You may choke on the ham-fisted performances, meandering speeches, and burning bush direction, but you’ll still have enough lung power to make it out of the theater before busting your gut.

As the film’s director, producer and star, Costner gets to step up to the plate three times, and never once hits a home run. He manages to knock a couple into the outfield, good for a base or two, but even with the home team advantage, can’t seem to rally the troops. The screenplay by Craig Storper, based on the novel by Lauran Paine, tackles the war between “Open Range” cattlemen, land owning cattle barons, and a rustic town’s worth of Central Casting innocent bystanders caught in the middle.

Shot in Canada, “Open Range” looks pretty, with director of cinematography James Muro wringing every last second out of the magic hour, that time of day just before the sun goes down, where the countryside is bathed in golden ambers and hues. Each and every frame is a picture postcard, which is great if you’re buying postcards. Costner believes that every picture tells a story, and his refusal to trim down the film makes one saddle sore.

Costner isn’t making a movie, he’s living up to a legend, one he helped create and now can’t control. Instead of just getting on with the story, Costner and Muro think they’re creating art by focusing on small, incidental asides, like a hand-rolled cigarette burning in someone’s hands. The filmmakers attempt to get us up close and personal with the characters, but like the opening shot, we always feel like we’re being kept at a distance.

Maybe that’s because the characters are flat and impersonal. They’re not really characters at all but character types, including the crusty stable owner (Michael Jeter) looking for a fight, the strong, beautiful woman (Annette Bening) who feels life passing her by, the despicable lawman (James Russo) who follows the money, and an aging cowboy named Charley Waite (Costner) looking to settle down before it’s too late.

Then there’s aging cowboy Boss (Robert Duvall) who likes to keep his friends close, and his enemies even closer. When local land baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) demonstrates his power by killing one of Boss’s men and Charley’s dog, he sets into motion a showdown that will divide the town.

Neat and efficient story thread becomes a ponderous exploration of what makes these men (and women) tick. The actors say what they feel, but we never feel what they say. We understand why they do what they do, but after an hour of self-reflection, we don’t care. Clint Eastwood explored similar themes in “Unforgiven,” a western whose characters were just as realistic and rustic as their surroundings. There isn’t one moment in “Open Range” where we don’t sense a luxury star trailer just out of camera range.

Robert Duvall is the best thing in “Open Range,” a wise sage who understands the difference between killing a man and killing man’s best friend. Duvall always looks comfortable high in the saddle, and instantly commands the screen when he’s on it. Costner isn’t as fortunate, perhaps spreading himself too thin to be effective as both an actor and director. As the leading man, Costner plays to type, and behind the camera, allows scenes to go on long after they’re over.

No western is worth it’s weight in Buffalo pelts without a schoolmarm or lonely divorcee patiently waiting on the sidelines for the rugged cowboy to sweep her off her feet and ride off into the sunset. Annette Bening fits the bill, and manages to invest herself in couple of warm, tender moments.

What “Open Range” lacks is a true sense of purpose. It brings nothing new to the genre, seems too bitter and long to impress a new generation of fans, and too familiar and obvious to rope in older fans.

RANGE ROVERCostner turns cattle war into a bum steer

OPEN RANGE

Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, James Russo. Directed by Kevin Costner. Rated R. 138 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $4.00



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