Open Range

Open Range

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The shape and feel of a classic Western must encompass the naked beauty of a land without end, so that the itinerant cowboy is glimpsed in the context of time and space.

Charley (Kevin Costner) has been working for Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) for 10 years and yet neither knows anything of the other's former life. Reticence and respect are considered qualities out on the prairie, where a hot headed fool can get himself killed quicker than spit in the eye of rattler.

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The film paces itself perfectly, opening on the high hills with a wagon stuck in mud and cows down wind in the safety of the hollow. Boss and Charley are freegrasers, perfectly legal in 1882, although unacceptable to unscrupulous cattle barons, who tend to be a law unto themselves.

All the inredients are here - a small town in the fiefdom of an Irishman named Baxter (Michael Gambon), a corrupt sheriff (James Russo), a doctor's unwed sister (Anette Bening) who has waited half a lifetime for the right man to love, a hired gun (Kim Coates) dressed in black with a sadistic smile - and yet writer Craig Storper and director Costner have avoided pastiche and stayed a clean distance from the temptations of cliche. Western aficionados will be disappointed that stalwarts, such as the shootout, are approached from a fresh perspective. Inventiveness in such a conservative genre may be damned for its difference.

When Baxter's men turn ugly and attempt to blast Boss off the land and steal his cattle, an unofficial war has been declared. A situation, not a thousand miles from High Noon, ensues. Boss and Charley wait for Baxter and his gunslingers to ride into town. "For one man in open ground," the farrier (Michael Jeter) notes, "you sure got a lot of killin' in mind."

Charley divulges the secret of his bad conscience. During the war - whether with Mexico, or against the Indians, it is not clear - he was part of an undercover unit of sharpshooters, operating behind enemy lines. Working for Boss was a way of exorcising those demons. Now his skills are being called upon once more.

The acting outstrips expectation. Duvall plays the old-timer with steely conviction, capable of explosive violence when required, unsentimental and unafraid. It is a peak performance from a veteran who seldom gives less than the full set. This cannot be said of Costner, who, ever since Dances With Wolves, has coasted through mediocre material that would not stretch the hind legs of a tortoise. Returning to the wide open spaces, he is re-energised and looking better than he has for a decade. He holds back admirably, avoiding the noble stance, once an essential ingredient of the Western hero, and internalises the conflict that rages within Charley's breast.

As director, he respects the genre's visual scope, while allowing his cast freedom of expression and avoiding the obvious.The way he handles the shootout has a messy authenticity that is surprising for its refusal to emulate the way the West was won.

Open Range has an originality within the confines of a well-honed discipline. For the second time, Costner has bet the farm and found his strength in cattle country.

Reviewed on: 18 Mar 2004
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Kevin Costner returns to the wide open spaces of cattle country.
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Director: Kevin Costner

Writer: Craig Storper, based on the novel by Lauran Paine

Starring: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates

Year: 2003

Runtime: 139 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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