Open Range – 2003

Director Kevin Costner
Screenplay Craig Storper based on The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine
Starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, James Russo, Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi, Kim Coates

One of Kevin Costner’s gifts as an actor is being the one person in the room that doesn’t find any situation particularly funny. This has been the case in every film except for the first Western classic he was in, Silverado. That earnest demeanor has served him well, as the other, funnier people in his films tend to find the bullets more often. The first time I saw Open Range when it was first released in 2003, it felt like everyone in the film, just like its star, lost their ability at humor. Watching again almost 2 decades later, it still seems that way. There are funny situations, to be sure, but no one on the screen will see the humor because there’s so much earnestness going around.

Open Range is a film that arrived past the peak of Costner’s reign as a Hollywood leading man. From this point, he moved into a supporting role, ultimately landing on television with Yellowstone. It finds the director / star given one more shot to give that hard worn hero persona that served him well since the late ’80’s.

At first viewing, I found this film to be amazing for its lack of humor for all involved. Duvall and Jeter had found ways to add a wink and a smile in many of their previous works. There are comical moments sprinkled throughout, but none of the characters ever let on that they know the situation is funny. This is an effective tool, used once or twice in a film. If you are searching for a character you might like to shoot the breeze with, this is a tough crowd.

The story is a different take on the robber baron motif. We still have that here in Michael Gambon’s Denton Baxter. This time, its just people who pass through his territory that get the rough stuff. This includes Boss Spearman (Duvall), his hired hands Waite (Costner), Mose (Benrubi) and Button (Luna). As they bring their open range cattle herd near the town of Harmonville, they get tied up with Baxter and his men. Though neither Spearman nor Waite are seekers of violence, they find that they have no mind to back off once the Baron pushes them to a corner. And that’s the way we like it.

Bening plays Sue Barlow, a woman too pretty to be that old and unmarried. She’s the sister of Doc Barlow and spends much of the film fixing bullet holes and waiting for Charley Waite to realize that they are meant for each other.

The story has a few genuinely great twists. One turns the tables on the ambush at the livery motif. They other is in the way one really should start a gunfight.

As time passes, I have learned to forgive the fact that this story, as good as it is, isn’t as good as Lonesome Dove. That epic managed to fit all of the truth this story possesses and still make a funny and relevant demonstration of life in the burgeoning west. Even if it takes the actor who played Gus McRae, removes half of his dimension and puts him in front of a bunch of dullards, the story is somewhat original and the camerawork is first rate.

Also, one of the bonuses of the film is the editing. We have perfectly positioned story elements that have happened off-screen. Saving the viewer from obligatory ambush scenes. and giving enough information we know perfectly well why things happen later.

Even then, we’re left with people talking about their feelings for the first time, even though they’ve rode together for at least a decade. This is all well and good, when trying to create the reasons behind why this gunfight will be different and more excusable than the previous ones that we have witnessed or heard about.

Much of the film is angling for emotional ground covered better in Eastwood’s Oscar Winning Unforgiven. This is fine, as more than a decade passed since that film was released. Some lessons are worth repeating.

Overall, this film’s path to righteousness is interceded by a character (Waite) with an extraordinary amount of common sense. This makes for some entertaining moments avoiding cliches while making sure that dumb people are exposed as smarter, more direct men cut them off at the pass.

I enjoyed this film this time around. It may be that I am getting older and I don’t need to have laugh out loud moments or even someone who is looking for the funny moment. Still, I enjoy watching Stumpy in Rio Bravo. It’s a recognition that the star and director of this film is making the movies and shows he wants in the way he wants to make them. It’s not perfect. It is entertaining throughout.

(**** out of *****)

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