Western fans with a hankering to see one the way they used to make 'em will get an eyeful in "Open Range." Kevin Costner returns to the genre in which he scored his Oscar-winning success with "Dances With Wolves.". Some supportive reviews and good word-of-mouth could generate nice theatrical and at-home biz.

Western fans with a hankering to see one the way they used to make ‘em will get a pleasurable eyeful in “Open Range,” an intensely scenic, refreshingly humanistic oater that dares to be sincere and open-hearted. Kevin Costner returns to the genre in which he scored his Oscar-winning success with “Dances With Wolves” 13 years ago, but without the sense of preening self-importance that could be found in that film as well as in his second directorial outing, “The Postman.” The nostalgia factor, some supportive reviews and good word-of-mouth among a public left unserved by most summer films could generate nice theatrical and, later, at-home biz.

So antithetical to prevailing fashion is Costner’s approach to filmmaking — he clearly loves the open air, allows his story and characters the time to breathe, believes in subtext and injects gentle comedy whenever possible — that, after Clint Eastwood, he almost seems like the last classical director in Hollywood. Certainly, all his points of reference for this film lie far in the past — “Open Range” consists of major slices of “Shane,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “High Noon,” “Rio Bravo,” “El Dorado” and “Red River,” as well as TV’s “Lonesome Dove” and Eastwood’s own “Unforgiven.”

But these are hardly bad examples to emulate. And while Costner may not be Howard Hawks, John Ford or George Stevens, he has evidently absorbed enough from them and others to create a reasonable facsimile of a typically likable and well-carpentered Western. In “Open Range,” Costner continues to work on a large canvas as in his first two films, but narrows his focus to relate a familiar but genuinely involving story about some independent-minded cowpokes up against some baddies who want to fence them in or worse.

Lead pardners are two saddle-tramps who, as of 1882, have been pushing cows across the plains together for a decade. Boss (Robert Duvall) is an aging sage of the frontier, a man who’s seen it all, knows right from wrong, accepts his admittedly melancholy lot in life with grace and humor, and fully merits his name by virtue of an indisputable sense of authority.

Costner’s Charley habitually defers to his elder (as Costner himself does by modestly taking second billing) despite his equal competence and undoubted physical superiority. After all the years, they barely need to speak to convey what’s on their mind; as Boss freely admits, they have “no need for a wife or home, we’re just like an old married couple.”

Pair are “freegrazers” who drive their cattle from one piece of land to another, and the opening minutes are devoted to delineating the pros and cons of such an existence; the sheer beauty and exhilaration of an unfettered life under the big sky is magnificently expressed at the outset, but this is soon undercut by a tremendous nocturnal rainstorm that makes miserable such basic functions as eating and sleeping.

Working for them are Button (Diego Luna, of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), a Mexican kid the older men have adopted, and genial hulk Mose (Abraham Benrubi), whose misadventures in the town of Harmonville force Boss and Charley to fetch him and put them at odds with Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon).

For the voraciously greedy Baxter, who has gobbled up all the land as far as the eye can see and has the entire community under his thumb, freegrazers are the scum of the earth and belong six feet beneath it; to Boss, it’s the ultimate affront that “one man can tell another man where he can go in this country.”

So it’s war, but one that proceeds in curious fits and starts, with tentative initiatives and improvisations that produce results which are alternately tragic, life-enhancing and humorous. After Boss and Charley assault some of Baxter’s goons at a campfire in a brutal scene, Mose is killed and Button is severely wounded, forcing a trip back into town to the doctor, where the woman of the house is Sue Barlow (Annette Bening).

As Button hovers on the edge of death, an attraction takes hold between Charley and the clear-headed, well-spoken Sue. But since Charley assumes she’s the doc’s wife — and he’s too reticent to ask if that’s the case — nothing happens for a long time. Meanwhile, the men head for Main Street in the middle of another, fiercer storm to take the temperature of the town. Sensing some potential support for their cause, the two old hands begin to lay the groundwork for their inevitable showdown with Baxter and his henchmen.

Format is similar to countless Westerns, and so are the elemental emotions engendered: the urge to freedom over tyranny, individualism over conformity, goodness over evil. “Open Range” resurrects these fundamental values for the umpteenth time in a story populated by guys with guns on horses, and manages to make them register once again.

Through the film’s long middle stretch, Costner and first-time screenwriter Craig Storper, working from a novel by the late Lauran Paine, inject layerings of ambiguity about the characters’ likely dead-end lives; Boss seems to have passed the point of having any future, while Charley, who after the Civil War worked as a hired gun just like the ones he’s now trying to kill, confesses to Sue that, “I never thought I’d live as long as I have.” For her part, Sue is actually an uncommonly beautiful spinster whose stoical acceptance of her lot doesn’t prevent her from acting on her emotions when a rare chance presents itself.

Climactic gunfight, for which Boss and Charley prepare by enjoying Swiss chocolates and Havana cigars, is abrupt, violent, unpredictably paced and imaginatively staged. Unfortunately, having come this far with such good form, Costner seems not to want to let the picture go, and so extends it through multiple incidents and dialogue-driven scenes to explicitly resolve every last little thing, when a few precisely conceived poetic images in a coda to the main action would have served more effectively. Given the prior dark undercurrents, resolution also feels too blandly upbeat; some element of regret and bitterness would have provided pic with more bite and resonance.

But even with these drawbacks, the film comes out ahead by virtue of its characters, solid types with whom it’s a pleasure to spend time. Duvall is splendid as a grand old man of the range, his iconography developed through previous, sometimes similar roles giving him instant stature that he turns back on itself through gusto and humor. Pleasingly self-effacing, hardly noble and quite willing to look his age, Costner seems happy playing second banana through most of the running time before stepping up in the third act showdown and romance.

Bening brings a mature vibrancy to bear on a frontier woman who could be a kissin’ cousin to Jean Arthur’s ranch wife in “Shane,” Benrubi scores in his limited moments as the doomed Mose, while Luna spends too much time laid up with life-threatening injuries to display his full thespian energies. Sporting an Irish accent, Gambon is at full-throttle as the malevolent cattle baron, and James Russo makes an effectively sniveling flunky sheriff. In one of his final roles, the late Michael Jeter, in full beard, is excellent as a serious version of a Walter Brennan character.

Pic looks great, with James Muro, who has worked extensively with such helmers as Oliver Stone, James Cameron and Michael Mann as an operator and steadicam ace, making an outstanding lensing debut. Gae Buckley’s production design gives a vivid impression of a new town still very much under construction, and creates very inviting cafe and saloon sets. Alberta locations are knockouts. Only grating element is Michael Kamen’s score, which swells as often as a pigeon’s breast.

Open Range

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation in association with Cobalt Media Group of a Tig production. Produced by David Valdes, Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts. Executive producers, Armyan Bernstein, Craig Storper. Directed by Kevin Costner. Screenplay, Craig Storper, based on the novel "The Open Range Men" by Lauran Paine.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), James Muro; editors, Michael J. Duthie, Miklos Wright; music, Michael Kamen; production designer, Gae Buckley; art director, Gary Myers; set designers, Peter Clemens, Jeffrey Goldstein, Patty Klawaan, Carl Stenzel, Sloane Uren; set decorator, Mary-Lou Storey; costume designer, John Bloomfield; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Glen Gauthier; supervising sound editor, Barney Cabral; visual effects supervisor, David J. Negron Jr.; visual effects, yU+Co; assistant director, David Silva; stunt coordinators, Norman Howell (U.S.), Guy Bews (Canada); casting, Mindy Marin; Canadian casting, Corren Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter; Alberta casting, Jackie Lind. Reviewed at ABC screening room, Burbank, July 31, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 138 MIN.

With

Boss Spearman - Robert Duvall Charley Waite - Kevin Costner Sue Barlow - Annette Bening Denton Baxter - Michael Gambon Percy - Michael Jeter Button - Diego Luna Sheriff Poole - James Russo Mose - Abraham Benrubi Doc Barlow - Dean McDermott Butler - Kim Coates
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