Should I Watch..? Open Range
What's the big deal?
Open Range is a traditional Western movie released in 2003 and was co-produced and directed by Kevin Costner. It remains, to date, the last film directed by Costner. The film is loosely based on a novel by Lauran Paine and concerns two open range cattlemen seeking vengeance after their companions are attacked by a corrupt land baron. The film stars Costner alongside Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon and Michael Jeter in his final on-screen appearance. The film was a critical success when it was released with many citing the climatic shootout as being one of the best ever filmed. The film was also a modest success at the box office with global takings of $68.3 million, most of which was made in American cinemas.
What's it about?
Montana in 1882 and cattleman "Boss" Spearman is driving a herd across country with hired hands Button, Mose and Civil War veteran Charley Waite who is plagued with guilt over his violent past. Stopping outside the town of Harmonville, Mose is sent into the town for supplies but is viciously beaten and jailed by the marshal Poole who is loyal to the local landlord, Irish immigrant Denton Baxter. Boss and Charley fear the worst when Mose doesn't return to their camp and after releasing Mose from jail, the pair are warned off by Baxter.
Treating Mose's injuries at Dr Barlow, Charley falls for Sue Barlow but believes her to be the doctor's wife. After their camp is scouted by masked men from the town, Charley and Boss eventually decide that enough is enough and turn the tables on Baxter's men. But it proves to be a fatal distraction as more men target Mose and Button back at the camp. With Boss determined to exact revenge for the attacks on him and his friends, Charley struggles with his feelings for Sue and soon realises that some pasts cannot be left behind...
Bluebonnet "Boss" Spearman
Dr Walter Barlow
Craig Storper *
Release Date (UK)
19th March, 2004
Drama, Romance, Western
What's to like?
Anybody who thinks that westerns are all about clumsy shootouts, hammy death scenes and Clint looking like a badass will find Open Range a refreshing change from all that spaghetti western nonsense. The film has a stark, almost minimalist style that is unobtrusive and gives it a documentary feel. Not that the film is boring to look at - Costner has a real feel for the epic and the film is loaded with sweeping vistas of the American West, grassy plains and snow-capped mountain ranges. It is quite charming to watch.
In keeping with the realistic tone, both Costner and Duvall deliver faultless performances as the two men finding themselves in a whole heap of trouble. And when the action does kick off, the film finds an extra gear and really packs a punch with every gun-shot, ricochet and impact felt through the camera. It's nothing like The Matrix but in this case, that's a good thing. There's no sense of CG or camera trickery to distract from the action and the shootout flows naturally. Weirdly, the film's epic scale shrinks during such violent scenes and this helps make the violence feel closer and more personal. Even though you don't spend a lot of time with these characters, you feel for them and ultimately care about their fate.
- Costner makes a habit of keeping a prop as a souvenir from every movie he's ever worked on. From this movie, he stole a bottle of Dr Barlow's chloroform.
- Robert Duvall was the only actor Costner had in mind for the role of Boss Spearman. If Duvall wouldn't do it then Costner speculated that the film wouldn't have been made at all.
- Costner spent a lot of time finding the right locations for the shoot, landscapes where "you couldn't see a fence, a road or another person." The shoot was so remote that $40'000 was spent to build a road for the production crew.
What's not to like?
As much as I'm a fan of Michael Gambon, he simply didn't feel right as the ruthless Irish landowner Baxter. He seemed saddled with unnecessary makeup and a crude accent and he didn't seem to fit into the picture that well. I also felt that the film needed a little bit more editing in places - the film's pace is rather dreary compared to other westerns like Unforgiven and I had little time for the romantic subplot between Costner and Bening.
But on the whole, this is one western that clings proudly to its roots and heritage and I, for one, am glad. The western genre has died a death as slow as any bandito ever since Sergio Leone's greatest work Once Upon A Time In The West in 1968. It seems like only Clint and Costner have any affection for the genre, Clint playing increasingly older versions of the Man With No Name and Costner's more realistic approach in Dances With Wolves. I would hate to see the ultimate demise of westerns and perhaps with modern film-making techniques, a revival is long overdue.
Should I watch it?
It won't appeal to viewers who think every shootout must have bullet-time and excessive explosions but Open Range is a heartfelt love-letter to a way of life that has long since left the American West. Beautifully shot and brilliantly portrayed, the film is an antidote to viewers expecting over-the-top death staggers, hammy acting and the same dusty sets. This is a western swimming in the Fountain Of Youth but steeped in nostalgia and against the odds, it works.
Great For: western fans, jaded action viewers, quiet evenings with a beer or glass of wine
Not So Great For: Irish viewers, modern action fans
What else should I watch?
Without straying into Western remakes, there aren't many good examples left. The obvious choice, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, is a superb tribute to both Westerns in general and Eastwood's long association with the genre. Quentin Tarantino also paid tribute to the genre with the blockbusting Django Unchained and later again with The Hateful Eight but generally speaking, the genre has been a refuge for half-hearted box flops like The Lone Ranger and straight-to-DVD garbage.
However, there are a couple of other options for viewers eager for horseplay and gun fights. The 2010 remake of True Grit from the Coen brothers was a brilliantly atmospheric western that lacked the narrative punch of the original while 2007's 3.10 To Yuma was another quality remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe on barnstorming form. Both are excellent additions to an increasingly dusty genre and reminds us that the Old West still has plenty of tales still to tell.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox