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All The Pretty Horses

movie review out of 4 Movie Review: All The Pretty Horses

Starring: Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz
Director: Billy Bob Thorton
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genres: Drama, Romance, Western

*Also starring: Lucas Black, Ruben Blades, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Bruce Dern

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

"All the Pretty Horses" is a frustrating piece of work. The western, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, starts off great, introducing two appealing cowboys and carefully establishing the dynamics of their relationship, then adding a third, enormously likable bad boy to the mix. But, just when the production gets rolling, the movie separates the threesome and fractures, splintering into a series of rushed vignettes.

Director Billy Bob Thornton's preferred version of the film was four hours long. After many months of fighting with evil studio executives who demanded a film that theatergoers might actually sit through, Thornton hacked his pet project down to 117 minutes. The stitches show. After a satisfying, leisurely opening, you can almost hear Billy Bob exclaim, "Sweet Jesus, look at all the story I still have to cram in there! Get me the shears and transparent tape, I've got to take some elaborate plotlines and turn them into Cliffs Notes!"

What suffers most is a romance between cowpoke John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Alejandro (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of a powerful rancher. Many critics have complained that there is zero chemistry between Damon and Cruz. Wrong. The chemistry is there, what's missing is sufficient time for us to accept their relationship. As presented here, the couple goes from "Pleased to meet you" to "I love you more than life itself" in about the time it takes a boy band to croon a ditty.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You probably would like to know the basic story before I start telling you what's wrong with it.

In a small Texas town in 1949, John Grady Cole learns that, due to a power shift following the death of his grandpa, the family ranch is to be sold by hard-hearted city folk. Disillusioned, Cole and his best pal, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), decide to head for Mexico in search of the West they feel is slipping away.

So far, so good. Damon, looking lean and eager, creates a persona that neatly blends practical skills with a romanticized outlook, while "E.T." veteran Thomas is quite strong as Lacey, Cole's pragmatic, but good-humored buddy. Together, they make a great team.

Shortly before crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, the guys meet up with trouble on a stick, in the form of young Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), a twerp whose gunplay is as good as his grammar is bad. Perched atop a horse that is probably stolen, Jimmy leeches onto the duo despite their attempts to shake him. Black, who co-starred with Thornton in "Sling Blade," is wonderful, stealing scenes and giving the whole production a greater sense of authenticity.

So, naturally, he is the first to disappear. After losing "his" horse in a hilarious lightning storm scene, Jimmy spots someone else with the steed and decides to steal it back. During the chase that follows, Jimmy splits off from Cole and Lacey, taking a goodly portion of the film's vitality with him.

The guys hire on as hands at a massive ranch owned by the aristocratic Rocha (Ruben Blades), where, in one of the best segments in the movie, they prove remarkably adept at breaking horses, just as Billy Bob Thornton begins to display his lack of proficiency in the editing department. Cole becomes friends with Rocha, while Lacey fades inexplicably (at least to me) into the background, taking more of the film's vitality with him.

From here on, the film adopts a choppy vignette motif. Cole and Alejandra have their MTV montage romantic build-up, which includes a skinny-dipping scene that only shows the couple from the shoulders up (Note to Billy Bob: Covering up the bodies of Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz is a terrible waste of natural resources). Then Cole faces off with Alejandra's powerful Aunt Alfonsa (Miriam Colon).

At this point, you can almost see Billy Bob watching the clock as the editing becomes even more abrupt. Bam! Cole and Lacey get arrested. Bam! Jimmy returns. Bam! Face-off with cops in the desert. Bam! Shots. Bam! Prison. Bam! Fights. Bam! Deals. Bam! More face-offs. Bam! Bam! Bam! Cue the closing credits.

Regarding "All the Pretty Horses," Matt Damon told Talk Magazine, "The four-hour version of that movie is the best movie I've been in in my entire life." I'm looking forward to the DVD release of the film, where we'll hopefully get the chance to see that version, instead of the sometimes rewarding, but far too episodic Reader's Digest version in theaters now.

A final note: After scanning quite a few critiques of "All the Pretty Horses," I am proud to point out that this is one of the only reviews in America not to employ the words "laconic" and "elegiac." Until just now, that is.

Copyright 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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