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OPEN RANGE
U.S. Release Date: August 15, 2003
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Kevin Costner
Producer: Kevin Costner, David Valdes
Composer: Michael Kamen
Cast: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Diego Luna
Running Time: 2 hours and 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violence)

Costner's Last Stand
by Scott Holleran

Add Kevin Costner's Open Range to the expanding list of movies whose trailers promise a theme the picture doesn't deliver. What you see advertised—a scene in which Mr. Costner's cowboy character renders swift justice—isn't what you get.

Open Range is the story of four men, Costner's cowboy Charley Waite among them, who transport cattle across the plains. As presented, they roam the West, do as they please and let the cows feed off of other people's land, which would make any property owner uneasy.

Such a struggle—ranch owner versus mooching cattlemen—might make an interesting story. Instead, Open Range depicts the men as aimless, if amicable, malcontents who are no more devoted to their work than they are to taking a bath.

Opening with panoramic pictures of the horsemen galloping across inviting landscapes, director Costner presents the men for whom we're supposed to cheer as they spit, scowl and play poker. The youngest among them, a cowboy named Button (Diego Luna), likes to pick his toes. Yee-haw.

What the cattlemen do not appear to do is love riding the range. When they meet with trouble in the form of a corrupt sheriff (James Russo) and a dastardly businessman (Michael Gambon), it's hard to sympathize. They haven't shown much affection for their work or their way of life, let alone made the case for living off of other people's property. The best among the bunch is an old coot played brilliantly by Robert Duvall in one of his best performances. He steals the show as the crusty cowpoke but there isn't much to steal.

Much of Open Range is standard fare: they head into town, meet a few characters, size up the opposition and meet a woman (Annette Bening). They're attacked, they retaliate, and a certain amount of suspense develops as the inevitable confrontation nears. But the tension dissipates faster than you can say "Waterworld."

Young Button is deeply wounded, requiring the care of spinster Sue, played by Bening. This is when Craig Storper's screenplay, a trail mix of one-liners sprinkled with romance, morphs into a lowbrow version of High Noon with a nod to Rio Bravo. Open Range becomes the story of the lone stars versus the company town.

Undermining the clash is the fact that half the town—nurse Bening, Doc (Dean McDermott), the blacksmith (the late Michael Jeter) and nearly everyone else—openly welcomes the free-grazing cowboys. Though Costner's tortured Charley has a decent chemistry with Duvall's happy old man, they are more interested in lounging around in the saloon or sipping tea than in facing the town's villain.

Anyone familiar with Costner's previous epics—particularlyThe Postman—knows that he favors epics with brooding characters who stand for some vague, undefined sense of fairness. But the real antecedent to this picture is Clint Eastwood's morally agnostic Unforgiven—also Eastwood's long, meandering A Perfect World, starring Costner—which proposes that no one's perfect. It's no surprise that when Costner's character says something meaningful, he spits a second later as if to prove he's only human.

Open Range, like its title, lacks any deeper meaning beyond the mundane existence of the common man—and that's the point. Except for a few moments amidst gunfights, Costner attempts to recast the Western as an ode to the ordinary.

Those attracted to the trailer's suggestion of a classic Western will be disappointed. Open Range is the logical descendant of Eastwood's spaghetti cowboy, with his blank, squinty-eyed, stare. It is the opposite of the heroic cowboy whose mighty "hyahh!" will rustle up something worth fighting for. It presents the cowboy as neither heroic nor anti-heroic, but something worse: the cowboy as in between.


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