Dances with clichés

Costner's oater succeeds by following the rules.

Aug 27, 2003 at 12:00 am

In order to appreciate, or even tolerate, Kevin Costner’s Open Range, you must first understand what it is and what it is not. This is not a modern movie, nor does it have modern sensibilities. This is not a spoof. There’s no twisted subtext or implied commentary on society today, and there’s no reality. There is nothing more than the code of the West, and, more importantly, the law of the Western.

Run into the ground by studios in the ’40s and ’50s because they could be made cheaply by shooting on the open range and using the expected clapboard Main Street USA exteriors, and because they were a totally known entity with specific conventions and stereotypes (much like the ultimate Western hero himself, John Wayne), regular Westerns petered out in later decades despite their genre offshoot, spaghetti Westerns, and oaters by the likes of Peckinpah that subverted the classic Western. There’ve been a few good ones since — the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries, Unforgiven and others — but it’s been a long time since somebody made an old-fashioned, John Ford-gazing, cowboys-and-bad guys Western.

That’s precisely what Open Range is, on top of being a celebration of what was once mainstream and is no longer. It’s all here: the independent, gruff but honest cattle drivers who live by their moral compass and refuse to let wrongs go unpunished; the minor but lovable character’s death that spurs bloody revenge; the greedy Irish-accented landowner who threatens them with death unless they get off his God-given land (never mind the Native Americans; but that’s a horse of a different Costner, is it not?); the townspeople cowed by the corrupt sheriff bought part and parcel by the Irishman. Costner hits every major Western cliché and theme, sometimes laughably, right down to the ol’ “those bastards kilt my dog!” trope and Michael Kamen’s sweeping score. It wasn’t shot in Monument Valley, but it might as well have been.

Based on a novel by prolific potboiler Western author Lauran Paine, the film’s only effort at avoiding total formula is more a function of the cinematography than anything else. It eschews the soft-glow close-ups that, in days gone by, might have smoothed out the creases in Costner and love interest Annette Bening’s fortysomething faces. Their romance is middle-aged, and so are their bodies.

For those who respect Westerns, though, Open Range is no comedy. The movie might not add anything to the genre, but the very fact that it was made and released — and beautifully shot by James Muro in his first gig as the main man behind the camera — in today’s economic and artistic climate is triumph enough. (It would be different if Westerns were released every day, as they were in the studio age, but the fact is that they are now as rare as a white elephant.)

Things start slowly as Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall, who gives an exquisite performance) and Charley Waite (Costner), along with oversized cook Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and teenaged sewer rat-with-a-heart-of-gold Button (Diego Luna), wait out a storm as they drive a herd of cattle West. They send Mose to the last town they passed to replenish their supplies, and when he doesn’t return, they go looking for him.

Turns out Mose got in a fight with some of Denton Baxter’s (Michael Gambon) boys. Charley and Boss patch Mose up at Doc Barlow’s office, where they meet a woman they assume is Mrs. Barlow (Bening). From there, Open Range cascades down a mountain of stereotypes, hitting its head on each rock on the way down. Costner wouldn’t have it any other way.

It should surprise nobody that this Western to end all Westerns comes from Costner. He has never truly sought to be a modern star, never turned his stardom upside down by working with a truly great director, although there’s still time for Paul Thomas Anderson to get his wily mitts on him. He has a reputation for over-budget ego. He plays distinctly American heroes, Civil War, old West, baseball or otherwise. He is overly iconic, Robin Hood, Wyatt Earp and Elliot Ness all in one. He does not do accents, and he does not modify his basic self. He has aged — when he first removes his hat in Open Range, his hair is not anywhere near gone but it is definitely thinning — but not changed. His movie is who he has shown himself to be, or at least aspires to be: classic, but not groundbreaking. In Open Range, he makes good on that desire.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].