Open Range

The Western was almost dead when Kevin Costner made Open Range in 2003, but then, so was Costner’s career.

The Dances With Wolves star hadn’t had a hit in years, but he’d had plenty of flops, including The Postman and 3,000 Miles to Graceland. His approach to Open Range seemed low-key, almost apologetic, taking second-billing to co-star Robert Duvall and downplaying his own role in the film. If his name had become toxic to most audiences, then it seemed he was trying to sneak this one in on them.

He needn’t have worried. With Open Range, he’d finally made a good film again, one of his best. It has all the pleasures of the classic Western (as well as a few of its minor irritations), is beautiful to look at, and offers exemplary performances. It didn’t do all that well, and apparently failed to resurrect his directing career, but there’s not a thing I dislike about it.

Costner has always preferred a rather ambling pace, which can be fine in an adventure film like Dances but was one of the fatal flaws ofThe Postman and that other Western of his, Wyatt Earp. (We do like to feel we are getting somewhere.) Open Range has that ambling pace, but here it’s in the service of a good story, and we get caught up in the lives and personalities of the characters. One thing this isn’t, and that is The Postman.

Costner plays an aging, retired gunfighter named Charlie Waite, a subordinate (almost a disciple) to Boss Spearman, a crusty old cattleman played by Duvall. Together, they ride across the American southwest, feeding their cattle for “free” on any open land they find. They are free spirits, answering to no man, so it irks them when a cattle baron (Michael Gambon) tries imposing his will on their “free-grazing.” The baron kills one of their friends (as well as the team’s dog), injures another, and tries intimidating Boss and Charlie. This is a bad mistake, as the film goes on to describe in a leisurely yet entertaining fashion.

Costner, who was never interested in following cinematic trends, directs his story as if it were a novel, allowing scenes to play out at their own pace. Duvall is allowed to create an intriguing character in Boss (even if he does feel a little too close to Gus McCrae in “Lonesome Dove”). Costner’s Charlie is the most interesting character in the film, a rugged individualist, competent cowboy, and cold-blooded killer whose Civil War experiences gave him a touch of PTSD. He gets a scene where he talks about his childhood and the war, and it’s probably the best acting Costner has done in a film.

There are plenty of traditional Western elements: the small town on the windswept prairie, the drenching rains, the crowded cafes, the horses, the extras, the hitching posts, the barns, the corrupt lawmen, and lines like, “Let’s rustle up some grub.” Yet Costner is utterly sincere in his approach, framing each shot like a painting and upping the tension when necessary. The film is most definitely a Western, yet like all Costner films, if you wanted to call it an action-adventure movie, go right ahead.

The whole thing builds up to a classic Western staple: the shootout. It is incredible. Costner proves his mettle as a director of action scenes, using fast cuts and some unrealistically lethal weapons (12 shots on a 6-shooter?) to explode the film into violence. The battle does seem to go on, but Costner keeps it moving, developing his characters even as many of them are getting blown away. I like the whole movie, but the gun battle is the reason to see it.

What doesn’t work? Well, I’d say Annette Bening’s character. She’s clearly in the film simply to provide a feminine touch, and it’s no surprise that she and Charlie fall for each other. Yet Costner handles her scenes well enough, and as always, she gives a warmly glowing performance. I might also accuse Costner of his trademarked corniness, as in the death of the dog, and the swelling orchestral music over some shots. But why quibble? (And who doesn’t hate dog killers?)

Even if he stopped acting, there was no reason for Costner to stop directing. Two out of three ain’t bad. Had he directed a few more after Open Range, The Postman might have been viewed as an anomaly, or been forgotten altogether. (God knows, other directors have made bombs.) Who knows? Maybe we’ll see another Costner film someday. I hope it’s as good as this one.

Field of Dreams

It would be easy to dismiss Field of Dreams (1989) as a rather silly daydream in which a middle-aged American white man (Kevin Costner) potentially ruins his family by plowing under his farm to build a baseball field, all because he hears a voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.” But I’ll go the trickier route by saying instead that it is a warm and genuinely heartfelt film in which a man learns to appreciate what he has right in front of him.

The movie is, on the one hand, a fantasy in which Costner’s Ray Kinsella gets to have a catch with his dad, who’s been dead many years. On the other hand, it confirms what we should have learned long ago, which is that Costner is now and always has been America’s dad, thanks largely to the final scene of this movie, where the son becomes the father to the man, and who, we believe, will have much to teach children of his own. Tom Hanks be damned; Costner got there first. (Today, of course, he plays the greatest patriarch of all, John Dutton, on television’s excellent “Yellowstone,” the long-form drama for which Costner was seemingly born.)

If You Build It, He Will Come – Field of Dreams (1/9) Movie CLIP (1989) HD – YouTube

I’m not a baseball nut, and this movie’s mythologizing of some of baseball’s biggest (and most infamous) names from the past is not exactly satisfying for me. I agree that Kinsella probably needs mental help, and that his wife, Annie, played by the far-too-sunny Amy Madigan, should put her foot down when it comes down to choosing between Ray’s fantasy baseball diamond and their daughter’s college education.

Yet, damn it, Field of Dreams gets by because director Phil Alden Robinson never overplays his hand. Everything in this movie is downplayed, from the fantasy elements (Ray walking back in time to 1972) to the domestic troubles (the brother-in-law foreclosing on the farm) to the little girl choking on the hot dog (a real eye-roller, let’s be honest). Here is a fantasy film that plays out under the cloudless skies of rural Iowa. It’s as fantastical as Excalibur and hero-worshiping as Raiders of the Lost Ark, yet because the director and his star both insist that this is all real, never resorting to cheap special effects or a lot of explaining, well, I’m willing to give Field of Dreams a positive review.

Ray hears a voice in his field one night and immediately decides it is referring to Shoeless Joe Jackson, a disgraced player from the 1920s whose … well, I don’t really care. Let’s just treat Shoeless Joe as a character in a fantasy film and move on. Ray pours untold funds into the construction of a FOR-REAL baseball field, complete with STADIUM LIGHTS, enduring limitless ribbing from seemingly the whole of Iowa. Yet his sunnier-than-thou wife cheerfully backs him, even as she laments the fact they are going broke. Is this the ultimate male fantasy or what? “Oh, you wanna build a professional-level stadium in our back yard, honey? Here’s the checkbook.” Right.

Ray is quite a talented guy, talented enough to use a saw and a few hand tools to build this stadium. Why doesn’t he hire himself out to the big leagues as a stadium architect? Anyway, soon the field is populated with long-deceased players who want to hit fly-balls with Ray. They are magical apparitions who cannot decide if they are ghosts or what. Then, Ray hears yet another voice, “Ease his pain,” and decides this one refers to a writer named Mann (James Earl Jones) who’s gone the J.D. Salinger-route by disappearing after a few iconic books.

Ray drives all the way to Boston to track down Mann, finally paying off the guy at the gas station for his address. (Uh-huh.) Sticking his finger in his coat pocket, Ray barges in on Mann and “kidnaps” him to a baseball game, where the third vision appears: “Go the distance.” This leads the duo (now on friendly terms) to Minnesota, on the trail of “Moonlight” Graham, played alternately by Frank Whaley and the great Burt Lancaster.

Look, I don’t want to bash or make too much fun of this movie. It is ridiculously sincere, but sincere all the same. I caught myself watching it as if transfixed. It is a testament to Robinson and his entire cast that Field of Dreams comes off as a heartfelt entertainment, rather than a goofy parody or a so-bad-it’s-good “drama.” It’s so straightforward and good-hearted that it seems to be talking about something other than baseball – one’s idea of home, for example, or maybe heaven itself.

I attribute 99 percent of this movie’s success to its cast, especially Costner, whose star was just beginning to rise. He somehow makes Ray believable, sympathetic, and likable, even as he’s whining at the end, “what’s in it for me?” He’s convincing as a regular guy. And that final scene (“Hey, dad?”) is a killer. The look on his face as he prepares to pitch to his dad is one of sheer confidence, of finally having found the thing that matters most in life, and not having to say it. In spite of all the speechifying the characters do (especially Jones), the movie does know when to simply shut up and let a scene play out.

I cannot explain one single thing that happens in Field of Dreams. Was the whole thing simply intended to bring the Kinsella boys together for a catch? Maybe. But the final shot, of all those cars wending into the distance, sends a different message, as does Ray’s vision of home. There is a warmth and sincerity to the conclusion of Field of Dreams that reminds me of another nutty semi-realistic fantasy film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If Costner, et al, earn comparison with that movie, then well done, indeed.

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