There was a time there when Kevin Costner’s stabs at long, drawn-out epics were simply not doing it for the cinema going public. After he hit paydirt with Dances With Wolves, the leading man ran into sizable obstacles with the ballooning budget of Waterworld and the apocalyptic boredom of The Postman successfully taking the sheen off his accomplishments. Even his return to the relative safety of the western with 1994’s Wyatt Earp wasn’t as fun (or as short) as the rollicking six shooting of Tombstone that came merely a year earlier – however, fast forward to 2003 and Costner decided to take yet another crack at the world of cowboys and unscrupulous ranchers with Open Range. While it was once again long and its pace steadily measured, Costner finally managed to get the balance right once again as he sat muzzled in the director’s chair in a dusty cowboy hat and a six shooter on his hip.
In Montana in 1882, a quartet of open range cattlemen lead their herd of steers across the land led by the unfeasibly gruff grizzle of “Boss” Spearman whose hired hands contain amiable lummox Mose, distracted kid Button and the measured Charley who has a checkered past due to his serving in a “special squad” during the civil war.
Life on the range is simple and slow, but when Boss sends Mose into the nearby town of Harmonville for supplies, their existence of cows, coffee and sleeping under the stars gets steadily ever more complicated thanks to ruthless, Irish, land baron Denton Baxter who utterly despises open rangers and has the town marshall in his pocket. After investigating his disappearance, Boss and Charley find Mose badly beaten in the town jail held on a trumped up charge and Baxter tells them in no uncertain terms to GTFO before even worse stuff happens to them. While tending to their conrad’s wounds at the local saw bones, Charley is rather taken with Sue Barlow, the sister of the town doctor, but as he wrongly assumes that the two are married and not siblings, he holds his tongue despite the obvious attraction.
Meanwhile, after fending off one attempt by Baxter’s men to stampede their cattle, Boss and Charley are dismayed when another assault leaves Mose and Button featuring matching bullet holes with the former stone dead and the latter in a coma. This inspires Boss to want to settle things once and for all against Baxter and his hired thugs, but Charley is somewhat anxious about returning to his bloody old ways, knowing the toll that violence can take on a man – but as the two men manage to gradually turn the once hostile town over to their side, it seems a good old fashioned shoot out is as inevitable to these men as stale coffee in their mouth and the smell of cow shit in their nostrils.
So, to start with, even though Open Range is a revisionist western, Costner is determined to be as old fashioned as he possibly can, remaining steadfast in keeping the pace as deliberate as a lost cow and the tone as unshowy as humanly possible. It’s quite an impressive stance to take in the wake of Unforgiven’s brutality, Tombstone’s swaggering cool and even The Quick And The Dead’s super stylised gunfights, but Costner is supremely confident that the stunning backdrops and the back and forth of two past-their-prime cowpokes are enough to hold the attention of an audience. Thankfully, he’s completely correct, but then with the cast he’s got it would be a genuine feat to not make the story engrossing. Costner himself is still the quiet, sensitive man with the blood of the past weighing on his conscience while Robert Duvall plays the latest in a long line of crotchety, yet decent authority figures, but it’s because these guys can play these kind of characters in their sleep is what makes them so interesting and lived in. Elsewhere, a shockingly young Diego Luna gives Boss the chance to be a father figure, Annette Benning is majestically understated as Charley’s love interest and Michael Gambon has fun with the Irish accent as the villainous and all these performances (and more) go a fair way to masking the fact that you’ve practically seen all this before. Shitty land barons and noble men with violent pasts are ten a penny in the world of the western, but Costner impressively makes all this over-familiarity somehow come across as a plus as he guides it from being utterly predictable into making the characters feel genuine and lived in despite their well worn archetypes (it feels like Duvall’s been playing sinewy, crusty grumps since his freakin’ 30’s).
However, all this familiarity isn’t worth a damn unless the movie’s heading for something and Open Range pays off patience in spades thanks to an epic, superlative gunfight that rounds off the plot. As Charley and Boss prepare to end their feud with Baxter with more bullets fired in the entirety of the Man With No Name trilogy, Costner the thespian becomes Costner the action director and the entire battle is clean, crisp and easy to follow and bodies hurl themselves through the air as rifle rounds jerk them through the air like dusty rag dolls only to plow into (or through) rickety wooden fences.
Costner as both actor and director is hardly breaking the mold, here, but part of Open Range’s charm is precisely because its expertly crafted into being exactly what you think it’s going to be without ever actually feeling derivative at all and as both big Kev and Duvall hunker down for the umpteenth time and discuss the regrets and goals of their long and lived-in lives, its obvious that both men are mist likely discussing their actual lives and experiences in a business that no longer respects things the way they used to be done.
It may not be an “old man” western quite on the level of Unforgiven or The Wild Bunch, but in a sedate, introspective way (until the bullets start flying, that is), Open Range is content to trot at it’s own pace to graze at the cliches at will.