Open Range


Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

(2003) Western (Touchstone) Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Benning, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates, Herb Kohler, Peter MacNeill, Cliff Saunders, Patricia Stutz. Directed by Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner returns to the American West, a setting which has seen his greatest triumph to date in Dances With Wolves. Like that Oscar-winning classic, Costner directs as well as stars and once again proves effective in both roles.

Charlie Waite (Costner) is a former gunslinger who earns his keep these days as a free-grazing cattleman, along with his partner, Boss Spearman (Duvall). They are grazing their cattle on what appears to be an uninhabited meadow near a town; one of their hands, an easy-going doofus named Mose (Benrubi) gets into a fight in town and eventually has to be brought back to the range by his employers. The cattle baron who runs the town, Denton (Gambon) can’t abide the thought of free grazers in his territory, and he orders his thugs to take them out, while the law turns a blind eye.

Mose is killed, and Button (Luna), a young man that the partners have essentially raised, is gravely wounded. Of course, Waite and Spearman can’t just let this go by, and they return to town, aided by a comely physician (Benning), to take justice as best they can.

This blends the best of modern Westerns, including the easygoing relationship between Waite and Spearman, which is straight out of Lonesome Dove (it’s no accident that Duvall starred in both), as well as the division between town and prairie, with the town representing corruption and violence as opposed to the freedom of the range. This is a theme that recurs in Clint Eastwood’s best movies, especially The Unforgiven and Pale Rider.

Costner is a better director than he is often given credit for; he has had his share of bombs (Waterworld, The Postman) but he knows when to show us a pretty picture and when to show us an ugly one. He juxtaposes the openness of the West with the confines of the town, and makes the hard, relentless life of a free grazer almost desirable. He is also appealing as the lead here, and that is what makes Open Range so good. Charlie Waite is a wounded soul, suffering from the demons of his own guilt seeking to forget his past in the vastness that was the West. Boss, his truest friend, is a rascal, yes, but a fair one. The two have a compelling chemistry.

Costner as an actor has an affinity for Westerns. He gets the rhythms and the flow of them. Now, he doesn’t necessarily sound like someone from the Old West in the sense that he uses the same style of speechifyin’ but I’m talking about Westerns. He has the laconic delivery of a Gary Cooper with the innate honesty of a John Wayne and the rugged chiseled good looks of a young Eastwood. Costner captures the essence of a Western hero and by extension, of American men in general. We all aspire to those values that made Westerns the king of movies during an era when arguably America was at its most prosperous. We also yearn for a simpler time when life was hard but our prospects were unlimited. The West meant freedom and a man could make a fresh start out there, get a second chance in some cases. It is the most American of aspirations.

The gunfights are often at the center of traditional Western, and there is a mighty good one here. You should be warned that the gun battle is extremely loud; those who are sensitive that way may want to think twice before seeing this in a state-of-the-art home theater with Dolby sound and all the bells and whistles. Otherwise, this is a sprawling, wide-open movie with a terrific human story at its heart, aided and abetted by some fine performances in the lead roles. Even those who are not particularly fond of Westerns, such as my spouse, Da Queen, will give this a rousing thumbs up as she did.

WHY RENT THIS: A throwback to classic Westerns. Costner is at his finest. A human story on an epic scale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly loud in places. Cliche in other places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Can be loud and violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Tig is not only the name of the dog in the movie but also the name of Costner’s production company. It’s taken from his grandmother’s nickname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 12 minute documentary about the history of the open range and free-grazing as well as a music video. It should be noted that the making-of featurette is unusually candid, dealing with the problems the film had obtaining financing (Costner and producers Jake Eberts and David Valdes put up about half of the budget from their own money) which weighed heavily on Costner during filming when there were no distributors lined up. Near the end of production, Costner was also working through severe abdominal pain which turned out to be appendicitis.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.3m on a $22M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Nice Guy Johnny

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Silverado


Silverado

Scott Glenn catches Kevin Kline lying down on the job.

(1985) Western (Columbia) Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, John Cleese, Ray Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Jeff Fahey, Tom Brown, Richard Jenkins, Amanda Wyss, James Gammon, Joe Seneca. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

 

Back in ’85, the Western as a genre was essentially dead. It had been in many ways one of the most dominant genres in movies during the 50s and into the 60s but faded from popular appeal, although the Italians made some pretty good ones in the 70s with Clint Eastwood particularly. However, the anti-hero craze of that era didn’t translate to the Western very well although periodically movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and others managed to re-capture the magic.

Silverado was an attempt to do just that by Kasdan, screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark and director of The Big Chill and Body Heat. He assembled a cast of some of the best young (at the time) actors in Hollywood and set them loose on the genre.

Emmett (Glenn) is a loner, an expert gunslinger just released from prison after killing the father of a cattle baron named McKendrick (Baker) who had drawn on Emmett. Now he wants nothing more than to be left alone but apparently it is not to be as he is attacked by a trio of bushwhackers ambushing him in his cabin.

Emmett decides to head to Silverado to find out what’s going on. Whilst en route, he discovers Paden (Kline), wearing only his skivvies and left to die in the desert. Emmett rescues him and together they head to Turley to meet up with Emmett’s brother Jake (Costner). Jake however is in jail awaiting hanging – he killed a man in self-defense but the judge didn’t see it that way. When Paden discovers one of the men who robbed him, he kills him and ends up in the same cell as Jake. Emmett breaks them both out and the trio escapes with the help of Mal (Glover), an African-American cowboy run out of town by Sheriff English John Langston (Cleese).

The quartet then encounter a wagon train whose money has been stolen by bandits. A comely homesteader (Arquette) attracts the attention of Paden, who along with his mates takes the money back and returns it to the homesteaders.

In Silverado, Mal discovers his father (Seneca) has been run off his ranch by McKendrick’s men who later return and kill his dad. Mal’s sister is working as a saloon girl in the saloon run by Stella (Hunt) and administered by the town Sheriff, Cobb (Dennehy) a former outlaw who once rode with Paden but now reports to McKendrick. He offers Paden the job of saloon manager which Paden accepts.

Emmett finds out from his sister that McKendrick is driving out all the lawful homesteaders in an attempt to make the range free for his cattle and indeed McKendrick’s men attempt to drive off the new set of homesteaders. The situation escalates when Emmett is ambushed and beaten nearly to death before being rescued by Mal, and his sister’s home burned to the ground, her husband (the land officer) murdered and their son Augie (Brown) kidnapped. The four men – Emmett, Paden, Jake and Mal – must take the law into their own hands if justice is to be done in Silverado.

This is really a throwback to the popcorn Westerns of the late 50s and the early 60s – John Ford would have approved, I think. The ensemble cast shows varying degrees of comfort in the saddle – Glenn is a natural for the genre, Kline less so although his laconic delivery channels that of Gary Cooper. The wide open spaces of New Mexico are brilliantly photographed and made ample use of by cinematographer John Bailey.

Costner’s performance of Jake is compelling and charismatic and would propel him into stardom. He damn near steals the show from his better-known peers which is no small feat. He captures the attention of the audience every time he’s onscreen and brings a whole lot of energy to the film. In many ways he drives the movie into a more modern vein, or at least modern for its time.

The 80s were a particularly fertile time for films and this one is a classic of its time. While it didn’t resurrect the Western the way I think the filmmakers and studio hoped it would, it did at least open the door for a trickle of Westerns (some with Costner) to get studio green lights. Without Silverado I doubt we see Dances With Wolves, The Unforgiven and the dozens of others that have appeared since then. I suppose in that sense, it was successful – the Western remains a fringe genre but at least it’s not extinct.

WHY RENT THIS: Great ensemble cast. A real throwback to the epic Western.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat pedestrian storyline.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few shoot-outs and a couple of bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was cast as Jake by Kasdan as a way of making amends for cutting his role completely out of The Big Chill.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a very interesting interview with Costner as he is quite candid not only about making the film but about his misgivings about the character as well. The Gift Set edition included a pack of playing cards, although this version is long out of print. You may be able to pick it up on eBay however.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.2M on a $23M production budget; it was considered a box office disappointment at the time although it has become more than profitable due to its home video release and regular cable and broadcast appearances.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1999)