Charley Waite: "You reckon them cows are worth getting killed
After Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997), back-to-back disappointments that nearly grounded his career as a director, Kevin Costner returns to a genre that's served him well in the past—the Western—and delivers Open Range, a film altogether entertaining.
Facts of the Case
Charley Waite (Costner), Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall, John Q), and their young hands Mose (Abraham Benrubi, ER) and Button (Diego Luna, Frida), are free grazers—nomadic cowboys who move their herd back and forth through the frontier between the Mexican and Canadian borders. After they're waylaid by a violent storm, the men are forced to go into a town to restock their supplies. There they encounter Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon, The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover), a vicious cattleman with the town's marshal (James Russo, Once Upon a Time in America) in his pocket and little tolerance for free grazers.
When Spearman decides he won't allow their enemy's arrogant violence to go unpunished, the unfolding events begin to bring out Charley's past as a Civil War soldier-turned-hired gun. The duo find support from the locals who have grown weary of Baxter's iron-fisted control of the town, particularly an old coot livery hand named Percy (the late Michael Jeter in a fine performance). Meanwhile, Charley falls for Sue Barlow (Annette Bening, American Beauty), the town doctor's sister, and feels the lure of civilization. But Charley's desire to put his wandering ways behind him is tinged by the fear his violent past makes him unfit to be Sue's husband.
Kevin Costner seems to have a unique way of gently deconstructing the Western, crafting pieces that are deeply-felt, respectful of the history of the genre, and smart without being reflexive or intellectually abstract. Open Range is less epic than Dances With Wolves, its examination of the Western as a mirror of the American psyche both simpler and more subtle. On the surface, it plays like a straight piece of genre entertainment, almost an homage to the classic Westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and others. The film brims with echoes of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), and many other classic Westerns. These aren't direct references but echoes, suggestive of the depth of Costner's understanding of the genre's rhythms and motifs, and how those formulas are the foundation of its mythic power. Despite appearances, Open Range isn't a throwback. While Costner works hard to stay within the narrow confines of genre, much of the film's life comes from the way he defies our expectations: violence doesn't erupt according to the normal rhythms of the Western; characters skirt clichß, but ultimately defy it; the ending (which I won't discuss in detail) is traditional, but not of the Western tradition—it's certainly not the way John Ford (or Sergio Leone, for that matter) would end a picture.
The performances of Duvall and Costner carry the movie. The interplay between Boss and Charley, their dawning understanding of each other only now, after years spent on the trail with one another, holds our fascination across the tale's languid unfolding. Westerns are often slow in the telling because their wide-angle views of unspoiled frontier aren't just pretty pictures, but expressions of the conflict between civilization and the wilds (both in the world and in men's hearts) central to the genre. Charley and Boss are each cast in the mold of a John Ford hero, but because they aren't alone, they aren't consigned to the fate of Clementine's Wyatt Earp or The Searchers' Ethan Edwards: the long ride into the sunset. In tandem, they provide one another the opportunity for a psychological self-discovery that is modern but doesn't violate the dictates or logic of the genre. Costner's reticent Charley contrasts nicely with Boss, an aging cowboy stamped by Duvall's sure-footed and humorous delivery of the stylized dialogue. Their respect for one another draws each character out in a way that allows the story to avoid expository soliloquies that fill in every emotional and psychological blank for us as an audience. Bening's Sue Barlow is similarly modernized, made fresh not by filtering her through the lens of 20th-century sensibilities, but by freeing her from the rigid male-female dialectics that govern the traditional Western. Sue is hard and resilient and, though she is the film's embodiment of civilization in much the way Grace Kelly is High Noon's, she's neither frightened nor morally repulsed when violence erupts. Like Charley and Boss, she's a pragmatist.
Open Range has been accused of having a slow first act, and maybe it does. It's a movie whose emotional intensity increases methodically as its plot unfolds, the characters coming to know each other and themselves as their increasingly dangerous circumstances force them to confront both their pasts and the present. The first act is in perfect keeping with this slowly building intensity, and it gives the audience the opportunity to observe men who are guarded by nature, men unlikely to tell you what's going on in their hearts or heads. The pace of the picture—which is really only slow in a world in which cinematic action is defined by hyper-kinetic fare like The Matrix—perfectly serves both character and plot. And the payoff for our patience is one of the most dynamic extended gunfights in the history of Westerns. Shot at street-level with handheld cameras, it captures the dirty chaos, the tense calm between short bursts of violence, that must have characterized the ugly reality of Old West killings.
Open Range comes to DVD in a two-disc Collector's Edition that presents the film on Disc One in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that, with the exception of some edge enhancement haloing, is about perfect. Colors are bold and natural, blacks deep, shadow detail subtle. The wide vistas (shot in Canada) make for stunningly beautiful compositions in the scope frame. This is what a Western should look like. Sound is similarly impressive, the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks both creating a soundscape that is, in turns, subtle and dynamic. Thunder storms surround you, as do the background sounds of the prairie and Michael Kamen's beautiful orchestral score. The most impressive aspect of the sound design, however, is the gunshots. Costner set out to make the guns as jarringly loud as they are in real life, not for the sake of creating a dynamic theater experience, but in order to heighten the emotional impact of the violence, to surprise audiences desensitized to film violence. Play this disc at just the right volume and your neighbors might call the cops thinking someone's gone off the deep end at your place. It's not just that the gunshots are loud, it's that they're reproduced with an amazing amount of clarity. They sound real, not like movie gunshots.
Disc One features an audio commentary by Costner that is both personal and technical. Open Range was made as a relatively low-budget, basically independent film (Disney came on late with a distribution deal and a small amount of money to contribute to the film's production). Costner's passion for the project shines through, as does his knowledge and love of the Western. He speaks as both the film's director and star, and rightly heaps praise on his cast, both leads and supporting actors, whose excellent work adds much depth to the film.
The centerpiece of Disc Two is a 66-minute making-of documentary called Beyond Open Range. Indexed in eight chapters, or playable from beginning to end with a Play All feature, the piece is presented in full screen with Dolby Stereo sound. As the documentary opens, the film's only financing is from a "slippery dick" Costner has little faith will come through with the money, and we watch as the director pays for trips to scout locations with his personal credit card. Much of the piece is behind-the-scenes video footage, shot prior to and during the film's production, and Costner provides unscripted narration, almost like a commentary, as he recalls what he was thinking and experiencing at the time particular pieces of footage were shot. It's this raw candidness that makes the piece special; it's easily one of the better making-of documentaries I've seen on a DVD.
Disc Two also contains two featurettes. America's Open Range runs 12 minutes and covers the historical facts that underpin the film. Relatively shallow on history, its greatest asset is the many period still photographs illustrating what life on the frontier was like. Storyboarding Open Range isn't a gallery of drawings, but a brief discussion of the storyboarding process and how it helped Costner when he found himself forced to shoot pieces of scenes, rearranging the shooting schedule in order to accommodate the ever-changing weather.
Twelve deleted scenes are indexed or can be played in their entirety with a Play All feature. These also have optional on-camera introductions by Costner. The total running time, including the introductions, is around 30 minutes, and the scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Stereo audio. The excised material offers some excellent acting moments, but also emphasizes how much the film benefited from editing, how limiting the character's speech and the facts they reveal about themselves is more in keeping with the reticent style of the Western.
Finally, there's a music video montage for the end title song, Broken Wagon. Frankly, the less said here, the better.
Open Range is a highly entertaining Western that is both respectful to the genre's history and entirely fitting to the time in which it was made. Hopefully this artful (and financially successful) effort will wash away some of the taint of past directorial failures, and Kevin Costner will deliver strong work in the future.
This one ain't guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Audio Commentary By Director/Star Kevin Costner
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