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Open Range

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Open Range

Starring: Kevin Costner, Annette Bening
Director: Kevin Costner
Rated: R
RunTime: 135 Minutes
Release Date: August 2003
Genres: Western, Action, Drama

*Also starring: Robert Duvall, Abraham Benrubi, Alexis Cerkiewicz, Lorette Clow, James Russo, Patricia Stutz, Rod Wilson, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, Dean McDermott

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

During the latter half of the 19th Century there existed a lawlessness in parts of the United States that could remind some of the situation in Iraq just after the Saddam regime was overthrown, a vacuum of anarchy. As Martin Scorsese tells us in "Gangs of New York," The Big Apple was in virtual civil war when a young man away from town for 16 years, comes back to avenge his father's murder. Thousands of miles away in the 1880's, the West was quite a bit different from the way it is today. Where killers are sometimes treated to lethal injections as in Texas, the bad guys did not have to wait ten, fifteen, twenty years before final vengeance (and purportedly deterrence) took place. Feuds were settled in a day, a week, a month with pistols and rifles. In "High Noon," the greatest Western of them all, Fred Zimmerman, blessed with Gary Cooper heading his cast, showed that in just 84 minutes you could tell a taut story of a marshall who knows a gunman is seeking revenge and feels a responsibility to stay and face the guy with no help from the townspeople.

Kevin Costner, on the other hand, requires 138 minutes to do more or less the same thing, though in his "Open Range," the good guys do get some strategic help from the people of a town that lies somewhere in the midst of a wide open range surrounded by glorious mountains (actually filmed in Western Canada in Alberta and near Calgary). Costner, an actor- director-producer as known for his sense of humor as Al Gore, shows his love of the old West while at the same time indicating as he did in "The Bodyguard" an embarrassment with love and sex. "Open Range" is a classic Western, not given a modern reading as some have done with Shakespeare's texts. To declare it the best Western since Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (about a one-time killer, now reformed, who comes out of retirement to make another hit for the money) is not saying a lot given the paucity of movies of the genre. If the theme of "Unforgiven" is the impact of killing and being killed, the motif of "Open Range" is not without a likeness, focusing on Charley (Kevin Costner), a former killer now coming out of retirement, who has been working for the past decade with Boss (Robert Duvall). A buddy movie that treats Boss and Charley as though they are an old marriage couple (nothing gay implied), "Open Range" glorifies the wide open spaces that were pollution-free (horses provided transportation) but cautions us that the villains, rich as yuppies yet less civilized, fought to retain their power and importance as alpha males.

As the story opens Boss, Charlie together with young Mexican Button (Diego Luna) and the hulking Mose (Abraham Benrubi), are a foursome of so-called free-grazers who run into trouble when they cross some land controlled by rich Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who hates free-grazers' insistence that the country is open to everyone and instead claims the right to keep his land empty of others' cattle. Because Baxter owns not only the land but also Sheriff Poole (James Russo), various citizens therein are not fond of him; not the horse-sitter Percy (Michael Jeter), not Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott), not the doctor's unmarried but highly choosy sister Sue (Annette Bening. The story itself is simple: a conflict between the will of people who live in the open with the cattle and that of a landlord and sheriff who think nothing of using extreme prejudice on the free-grazers.

Director Costner never makes the conflict clear; for example, doesn't the bad Irish-American make a reasonable point when he attacks free-grazers as trespassers? we'll just have to suspend disbelief and accept Boss's view that he and his trio have every right to roam the West at will. Nor do Boss and Charlie appreciate attacks on his quartet that take the life of one and put another in critical condition.

While a story of this nature could be wrapped up in "High Noon"'s 84 minutes, Costner allows himself two and one-quarter hours to develop his characters, and illustrate the environment that forms a backdrop to their activities. While we're tempted to glamorize life on the range, think again: while camping is just fine as long as you don't do it all year round, these guys have to operate without the amenities of civilization. No sushi bars, no family, not more than a few blinks of the eye in the questionable comfort of the rickety old town build on wood, for the most part, and on glass designed to be shot out with a rifle when the enemy lurks just without.

The landscape is a beaut. Costner in one scene floods the fictional town of Harmonville (actually filmed on the Stoney Nakoda First Nations Reserve west of Calgary), a dramatic peak until that point being the rescue of a dog caught in the flood, terrified and swimming for his life. The best thing about the town is that the one sawbones, Doc Barlow, never has people waiting in his office, his sister on call whenever the doc is doing a home visit to provide bandages and love at first sight with Charlie, seducing the older Boss into revealing what he had never told his pal of ten years: that he had a wife and kid some time back who both died of typhus.

Costner takes a risk in going with an iffy genre, the American Western, an opportunity to attract a young audience unfamiliar with the films of John Ford and bring in an older crowd itching to relive the days of the Lone Ranger, Tom Mix and Curley Bradley the Singing Marshall. Lenser James Muro photographs the beauty of the open range that could make the overly-urbanized viewer who takes in the movie after shopping at Zabar's think of camping until the desire wears off the next morning. "Open Range" is long and mostly slow with a climactic gunfight that's brutal and powerful, a potential revival of the genre which has lain mostly dormant during the past eleven years.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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