There's no mistaking the hero worship in the opening shots of Open Range
, actor-director Kevin Costner's movie about cowboys and ranchers facing each other down in the old West. In their picturesque hats, vests, chaps and bandannas, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charlie Waite (Costner) are the picture of prairie competence, self-reliance and rectitude, photographed from below to make them look especially tall in the saddle. Right off they face a gathering storm, a big blow that pins them to camp and scatters their horses.
But natural obstacles are simpler to overcome than the man-made kind, and that rainstorm, it turns out, is a metaphor. A rancher named Baxter (Charles Gambon) wants freegrazers such as Boss and Charlie gone, and he's backed up by a corrupt sheriff and hired goons. Inevitably, the struggle for land breeds violence, and after Baxter's thugs kill the cowboys' genial, lumbering cook and leave their teen-age hand for dead, Boss and Charlie ride into town gunning for justice.
In some ways, Costner gets a lot of mileage out of the Craig Storper script, which is based on a novel by Lauran Paine. Open Range
is prettily photographed and more or less realistic-looking; the cowboys might be the heroes, but they get muddy, too. And Boss and Charlie are drawn as somewhat more sensitive creatures than the typical movie cowboy. They've got feelings, and a regard for each other's feelings, that helps deflate tendencies toward myth-making. Charlie has a violent past he regrets. And though they're both suspicious of civilization -- the first sight of little Harmonville's weathered wooden shacks is accompanied by a subtly ominous soundtrack rumble -- they're also susceptible to its charms, especially as embodied by Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the doctor's assistant Charlie falls for.
Moreover, there's such a warm camaraderie between Duvall and Costner that it's hard not to like their characters. Duvall in particular fleshes out plainspoken Boss with touches like his glimmer of pride after a standoff with the sheriff when he asks Charlie, "Whadya think of my speech in there?"
Of course, the script also makes these lovable fellows shoot their way to a bloody finish line, and drops in wincingly Western phrases including "nigh on 10 years," "plum crazy" and "This ain't the way, pard." Charlie even calls himself a "cowpoke."
Costner the director has never shied from corniness, nor, as he demonstrated in Dances With Wolves
and The Postman
, is he real big on moral ambiguity: Baxter is so vile he actually points a gun at a little girl. In fact, in press materials, Baxter is referred to as an "evil rancher," perhaps so inattentive reviewers don't confuse him with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Despite its bursts of purgative violence, Open Range
is ultimately about men coming in from the range and finding themselves in a community, where it is somewhat harder to be heroic, though one's audience is no longer limited to a few dozen head of cattle.