"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
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,
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott