Open Range (2003)
They don't make them like they use to especially when you talk about westerns, but occasionally they get pretty close. One such western which gets very close is "Open Range" starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner and Annette Bening. It has that old style feel, that storyline about cowboys looking for justice and feels at times like one of those westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. But whilst surprisingly good it's not perfect and at times feels drawn out as it tries to capture the beauty of the open plains a little too much and also delivers an ending which is most definitely drawn out.
Whilst driving cattle across the open range cowboys Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) are forced to take action and revisit their painful pasts when Denton Baxter the owner of a ranch and king pin in the local town decides to run them and their 2 partners out of the area. Forced to seek justice Charley and Boss put their lives on the line against Baxter's men to get justice for what has been done to them and for what they stand for.
The first thing which hits you about "Open Range" is that it has an almost artsy side to it, with lingering shots of the open plains, mountains and the use of natural lighting to deliver atmosphere. It's surprising because this level of artsy ness is not what you normally associate with a western or with the director Kevin Costner. But in a strange way it works, it creates the atmosphere, the loneliness of the plains and wows you with the beautiful vistas. Although saying that there are times when the level of artsy ness seems almost indulgent, lingering longer on shots of the back drops than maybe necessary causing it too feel a little drawn out as if Costner was so in awe of his surroundings that he couldn’t restrain himself from one more scenic shot.
But when you get past the visual ness of "Open Range" it has a very traditional feel with Charley & Boss finding themselves forced into seeking justice against a land owner who also controls the nearby town. It delivers all those expected elements, the Marshall who is in the pocket of the land owner, the quirky locals, the town doctor, the romantic element and of course the big gun fight, everything you would expect from any western. It's as if writer Lauran Paine had masterfully combined the various elements of popular westerns into one story, but not haphazardly but in a very flowing manner. It makes it feel familiar and very traditional but not in a bad way because it also captures the whole essence of the old westerns.
At the same time as feeling traditional it also adds a more contemporary side. Elements such as the town flooding making it difficult to walk around, that people didn't just go around shooting on the spur of the moment preferring to keep innocent people out of it and that the gunfighters prepared for battle, they places weapons in calculated places it gives it a slightly more believable feel. It certainly works because it stops it from feeling too fantasy like, although the big gunfight is the stuff of childhood fantasy, epic in scale with guns a blazing and bad guys getting massacred. It's another reason why it gets very close to the good old times of westerns, because it delivers those wonderful big screen moments and that gun fight certainly stands out as one of the best.
But it isn't perfect and in the tradition of westerns there is a romantic element which smoulders between Charley and Sue Barlow, brilliantly played by Annette Bening, who works with the doctor. For the most it's a nice element but is one of the reasons why "Open Range" is drawn out, it pays it too much attention to it especially during the final half an hour where it endeavours to bring closure to every aspect of the storyline. For me it didn't need closure, or at least not to the extent that is delivered in "Open Range" and would have been better to leave that side of things slightly floating. It would have certainly cut down the running length to less than 2 hours instead of the quite long 2 hours 13 minutes it runs for.
As for more positives well Robert Duvall is a piece of brilliant casting delivering every aspect of the old cowboy with a past that he's been trying to leave behind. And Kevin Costner is equally good as his right hand man Charley, delivering a more restrained performance than we are use to from Costner, giving us not so much a silent cowboy but one who only says something when it's worth saying. Between Duvall and Costner they make it all come together delivering the action perfectly but also the bond they have making them believable as old working friends who yet no little about each other.
What this all boils down to is that "Open Range" is very much a modern movie which manages to capture much of what was so good about the old westerns. It centres on a simple but compelling story of justice, it delivers tension and atmosphere plus of course a stunning gun fight which really is one of the best to have hit the big screen. But it does at times stray from the path. Costner's attempts to deliver the beauty of the landscape is at times a little over indulgent, drawing things out longer than is necessary as is the romantic storyline which whilst in the tradition of westerns is given too much attention. But even so it is a stunning modern western, one which is a must see for fans of westerns.