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.