Movie Review


Open Range

Open Range

Production Company: Touchstone Pictures
Director: Kevin Costner
Principals: Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Robert Duvall, Michael Gambon
Rating: R (violence)

By Gregg Tubbs

( -- If you enter a multiplex in the next month, breathe deep and you may get a whiff of sage brush. And look closely, as you watch Open Range, because you just might see Gary Cooper peeking behind Kevin Costner’s flinty gaze. With Open Range, star and director Costner doesn’t exactly resurrect the classic western, but he does channel it through believable performances, breathtaking vistas and old-fashioned values.

Open Range
Boss (Robert Duvall, left), Sue (Annette Bening, center), and Charley (Kevin Costner, right) saddle up in Touchstone Pictures’ Western adventure, Open Range. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
Cast in the mold of such classics as Shane and High Noon, the familiar western archetypes are well represented. Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner play Boss Spearman and Charley Waite, “free-grazers” who want nothing more than to find a spot where their small herd of cattle can graze, and move on in peace. Like most western heroes, they won’t start a fight, but aren’t afraid to finish one.

Times however are changing, and while free-grazing is still legal, it’s being choked out by the likes of Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), a sadistic cattle baron who uses barbed wire and thugs to keep free-grazers out of his territory, whether he actually owns the land or not. Baxter, who pays off the local marshal, lords over the town of Harmonville with ruthless glee. Boss, Charley and their crew are clearly not welcome in Baxter’s fields or town. For any card carrying cowpoke, this denial of a man’s right to “go where he pleases” is bad enough, but when one of Boss’ range-hands is killed after going to town for supplies, you know where this movies headed – a showdown!

Open Range
Sue Barlow (Annette Bening, left) helps her brother, Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott, right), care for the town of Harmonville in Touchstone Pictures’ Open Range. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
Annette Benning plays Sue, another western archetype, the “good woman.” She’s a spinster, living with her brother, the town doctor, whose house is fittingly, nearest the church. As Sue and her brother patch up Boss’ injured men, a romance grows between her and Charley. He is attracted to both the woman, and the virtues she represents. It’s both touching and comical to watch the rough plainsman treat her like delicate china.

But Charley has a dark and violent past. A former gunfighter, he took to the range to avoid town life, where his violent side would be tempted. As his attraction to Sue grows, he can’t shake the feeling that his past makes him unworthy of her love. As he heads to the inevitable gunfight, Charley confesses his past to Sue, who assures him that she can forget his past.

Open Range
Charley (Kevin Costner, left) and Boss (Robert Duvall, right) engage in a climactic shootout with ruthless rancher Denton Baxter for control of the city of Harmonville. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
It’s only in the gunfight that Open Range strays from the classic western mold. Director Costner has said this film is really about violence and its terrible aftermath. He views his own character, Charley, as a “violence addict” who is never far from falling off the wagon. When the gunfire starts, the return of his killer instinct is a frightening thing to behold. Costner stages the gunfight as the antithesis of typical, highly choreographed movie violence – abrupt, clumsy, messy and shocking. Cinematically, the gunfight is the highpoint of the film, and the most emotionally wrenching. After the fight, the camera lingers to show the bloody aftermath of wounded men, injured horses and damaged property. Charley slumps against a wagon and you can see the regret and sadness he feels for what he has brought to this town. As he wearily looks on, the formerly timid townsfolk chase the last of Baxter’s men across a field, and shoot him in the back.

Given its title, you would expect a film that explores vast, untamed spaces, but instead, Open Range is mostly concerned with boundary lines - the lines separating freedom and domination; honesty from dishonesty; justice and vengeance; and what’s right from what’s wrong. Most notably, it explores the consequences of crossing these lines. Baxter faced the consequences when he crossed the line between authority and tyranny. But we must ask ourselves, do the “free grazers” cross the line themselves as they seek justice against Baxter?

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.

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