“All the Pretty Horses” is a half-broken adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s great modern Western novel. Neither dull nor exciting, this long-in-the-works tale of two Texas boys who get all the trouble they can handle down Mexico way boasts a faithful script by Ted Tally that is under-served by director Billy Bob Thornton’s lack of a coherent visual style and inability to catch a proper rhythm. Nor will it help the commercial prospects for this domestic Miramax release that there was more chemistry between Matt Damon and his golf balls in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” than there is here between the star and leading lady Penelope Cruz. A modest B.O. ride is the best that can be expected.
Originally bought by Columbia for director Mike Nichols, project eventually made its way to Thornton and, during protracted post-production, flip-flopped to Miramax for U.S. distribution, with Sony taking over foreign, where prospects might be marginally brighter due to Cruz’s name and possible lingering fascination with the American West. In period and setting, pic is most reminiscent among recent titles of Stephen Frears’ 1998 postwar quasi-noir, “The Hi-Lo Country,” which is not a good thing, although “Pretty Horses” has the benefit of a familiar title and higher-profile talent.
All the necessary exposition is quickly disposed of under the opening credits: With his grandfather’s death in 1949, young John Grady Cole (Damon) suddenly finds himself without a home or a future, the vast family ranch he expected to work the rest of his life having suddenly been sold out from under him by his absent mother. Deciding that Texas is “played out,” Cole and his best buddy, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), ride for Mexico, where they figure they can find work as top hands and live the life of “real cowboys” that they have always imagined was their destiny.
For a youngster (late teens in the novel), Cole is quite self-possessed, not to mention capable in all things cowboy; next to him, the more pallid Rawlins, while a boon companion, seems more the hired hand. No sooner have they set off on their trek than they run into Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black, the boy from “Sling Blade”), an uncouth but cocky 16-year-old who is riding a horse so fine they have to suspect it is stolen.
Thornton’s botched presentation of the first big scene among the trio is suggestive of the problems that plague the entire film. Sitting at some distance from one another among rocks, Cole and Rawlins begin to tease the boy in laconic threatening tones, about how they just might have to kill him and take his horse. Eventually, Blevins catches on that they’re just kidding, but it takes a while. To build the desired deadpan tension to the point of meaningful release and eruptive humor, this dialogue should have been delivered in a measured manner, with beats in between, but Thornton rushes his actors through it, to scant effect. Nor does he even give the viewer a good look at the horse.
And so it goes, as the film hopscotches from one condensed scene from the book to another, without ever sweeping one up in the journey or tapping into the mother lode of rich comedy that exists in McCarthy’s brilliant dialogue, good chunks of which have been wisely retained by Tally. Splitting off from Blevins after the kid dubiously “steals” back the horse he lost during a lightning storm, Cole and Rawlins hire on as hands at the lavish ranch of the aristocratic Rocha (Ruben Blades), whose saucy daughter, Alejandra (Cruz), immediately gives Cole the eye.
Pierced through the heart even after one of the most uneventful courtship scenes in memory (one that climaxes with the awkward would-be lovers rubbing their respective shnozzes and commenting about having something up their noses), Cole ignores the friendship he’s cemented with Rocha, the dictates of Alejandra’s watchful aunt Alfonsa (Miriam Colon) and Alejandra’s need to retain her reputation by bedding down with the sultry senorita, who seems to have never before met a man who wanted her enough to defy her father.
But no one can doubt that there will be a price to pay. Cole and Rawlins are hauled off to a rural jail where they encounter, of all people, Blevins, who’s in for horse thieving and murder. Interrogated but spared Blevins’ dismal fate, the pair are transferred to a squalid Mexican penitentiary, where they receive the sort of treatment no doubt specially reserved for good-looking young gringos. But after proving his manhood in a prison fight that has more flair than any other scene in the picture, Cole is released and, against Rawlins’ advice, returns for a final reckoning with Alejandra.
Given that Tally’s screenplay capably covers the basics of the book — it respects the language and structure and is alert to the main themes pertaining to the essence of one’s character, coming of age and Cole’s search for a father figure — the film’s greatest flaw is Thornton’s and cinematographer Barry Markowitz’s failure to establish a stylistic correlative to McCarthy’s spare, raw prose. The film’s look ranges as far afield as do the characters, from wide-angle exaggerations and heavily filtered nature shots to repetitive closeups and stately landscapes. For a Western, especially, the compositions are uninventive and uninteresting, making for a not particularly attractive film.
Damon is responsive to the physical and attitudinal demands of the leading role, but he just doesn’t quite seem like a young man who’s spent his life amidst the dust and dung of a Texas cattle ranch. Nor does he strike any sparks with Cruz, the dark Iberian beauty who still hasn’t registered in English with the effectiveness that she does in her Spanish films; here, her range extends from come-hither looks to tearful remorse. Thomas is OK as Rawlins, but young Black is the actor here who best captures the dialect and cadences of cowboy speech. Most of the other supporting thesps are in for just brief appearances in this episodic yarn.
Sally Menke’s muscular editing moves things along at a rapid clip, which may or may not reflect Thornton’s intention, while Marty Stuart’s score is evocative at times, intrusive at others. For the record, “Pretty Horses” reps Thornton’s third outing as a director; his second, “Daddy and Them,” has yet to be released.