Bill Pullman joins the ranks of first-time directors at TNT — a list that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tommy Lee Jones — with this languid and reverential adaptation of Owen Wister’s classic 1902 western novel about a mysterious and idiosyncratic horseman without an evident name.
It’s the fifth time “The Virginian” has been rendered to film (most famously in 1929 starring Gary Cooper and Walter Huston) and its second telling on TV (running as a weekly NBC western saga from 1962-71). This latest retelling is as comfortable as a well-worn boot.
For his first outing as a hyphenate (director-producer-star), Pullman shows an effortless grasp of a genre that TNT has single-handedly kept alive: the western. If Pullman looks a tad too slick to evoke a convincing pillar of cowboy morality, he balances it out with a steady, unforced performance and a directorial hand that illustrates sharp artistic instincts.
And this Pullman fella is no fool. Opposite his Virginian, he casts the seemingly ageless Diane Lane as his Molly Stark (a luminous frontier schoolteacher with willfulness to spare). The two show off an easy chemistry, made easier by the simple fact that Lane tends to make everyone and everything in her orbit look better (case in point: “Lonesome Dove”).
The smart casting decisions likewise extend beyond the prime leads and arouse a genuine sense of western history, with the players including Dennis Weaver, Harris Yulin, James Drury (TV’s original Virginian) and the superb John Savage.
Larry Gross’ adapted teleplay boasts of being more faithful to Wister’s original novel than its “Virginian” predecessors. But the story remains essentially the same: a Virginia man (Pullman) sets out from his native state in the 1890s and heads west to try his hand at carving a niche in the Wyoming Territory. He finds work as a ranch-hand, using it as the backdrop in his obsessive search for justice and righteousness.
The Virginian would find far more than he bargained for, including friends that betray him, evildoers who challenge his manhood and a woman whose love comes with strings of behavioral accountability attached. Both Colm Feore (as the wicked young cowpoke Trampas) and Dennis Weaver (as lily-livered villain Sam Balaam) contribute strong, colorful characterizations. And Lane inflects the part with a quiet, mesmerizing dignity.
Rick Roberts’ spare production design joins hands with the breathtaking countryside locale to further bolster “The Virginian,” which demonstrates that even in its fifth movie go-round a story can be made to feel fresh enough. Keep an eye on this Pullman kid. If he ever decides to quit his day job, he just might be able to make a go of directing.