No place to run. No reason to hide.
Directed by: Kevin Costner
Running time: 145 minutes
If only cowboys played baseball. The only two genres Kevin Costner has managed to master are the western and the baseball movie, and the fusion of these two concepts into one Kevin Costner super-movie, possibly involving John F. Kennedy for good measure, would definitely be the sort of box office juggernaut that Waterworld wasn’t. As long as the man stays away from the science fiction, even if he has to pay someone to help him accomplish this goal, the world will be a better place. If he pays me to help him accomplish this goal, the world would be an incredible place.
It’s not really that Kevin Costner’s baseball movies are that incredible, just that they are plentiful. It is in the western where his temperament truly fits. With Open Range, he makes strides back towards the success of Dances with Wolves. The circumstances are different, but the expansiveness of the West and the plainness of the protagonist and his struggle against changing times are the same, and they fit Costner like Italian pants.
Charley Waite (played by Kevin Costner, who is still gruff) likes his job. He is a freegrazer, which seems to be another word for homeless cowboy. He works with Boss Spearman (played by Robert Duvall, who is still old), and together they take cows from one place to another place, and also there are horses and ropes involved. It is one great big dirty mess to this movie critic, and by it I am referring, of course, to the West (played by Canada, which is still empty). Spearman and Waite are accompanied by a pair of lovable sidekicks, and also a symbolic dog.
When one of the sidekicks runs up against the wrong side of the law (because he runs up against the wrong side of the man who owns the law) in a small town, tensions rise. We know this because Charley Waite starts to spit more frequently. The man who owns the law, named Dexton Baxter (played by Michael Gambon, who is still Irish but who will soon become Dumbledore), decides he wants to get his henchmen to stampede Spearman and Waite’s cattle, which would pretty much screw over their little business. Spearman won’t stand for it, and things progress from there, until eventually the women and children are fleeing for the hills. You think I’m kidding.
Overall, the slow pace that Costner seems comfortable with suits the film. The fact that he took all the good lines for himself (“Men are going to die here today. And I’m going to kill them.”) doesn’t hurt either. But what really makes the movie work is that we know what is going to happen before it does. When the sheriff walks into the café where Spearman and Waite are enjoying a coffee, we know he’s going to see them, and we know he’s going to tell them to get out of town. But for 15 delicious seconds, we can feel the tension as the two freegrazers try to slide out the door so as not to cause any trouble. The script and direction have the same sort of relaxed inevitability that we find in the mindset and lifestyle of the freegrazers themselves, and the nod to Kurosawa is evident. (The nod to every other western ever made is implied).
The other aspect of the film that makes it work is the humor. Scenes that take place in that little western town are full of the sort of hidden, physical, one-line comedy and brief seemingly throwaway scenes that show that the story isn’t taking itself too seriously. Surprisingly, they strike home every time.
While flawed, idealistic, and a tad on the preachy side, Open Range captures more than a bit of truth, and quite a bit of entertainment. For fans of westerns and simple city folk alike, it is worth enjoying. One can only hope that Kevin Costner can continue to take his direction up a notch for his next project.