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The cowboy way

A review of Open Range

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Open Range (R)
Touchstone Pictures

There's something immensely satisfying about an old-fashioned western -- provided you're willing to turn off those sections of your brain that demand historical accuracy, Native American rights or feminist consciousness. Even the formula is satisfying -- a stranger or two ride into town and ... the story unfolds from there.

In the case of Open Range, the strangers who ride into town are Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), range riders who are looking to find their friend Mose (Abraham Benrubi) who disappeared two days before when he went into town for provisions for their small band. Once there, Boss and Charley discover that Mose was jumped by a gang of thugs hired by the local rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and is now locked up under the eye of the corrupt Sheriff Poole (James Russo). When they go to the jail, whom do they find but the Rancher Baxter himself, who lets them know he wants all free-grazers gone and preferably dead.

With their friend injured, Boss and Charley have to take him to the town doctor who is sympathetic to their plight. He, along with a lot of townsfolk, think Rancher Baxter is a goodfernothin, and they'd happily see him overthrown -- as long as they don't have to do the overthrowin'. Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott) lives with a wonderfully aged Sue (Annette Bening) who Charley falls for at first sight. Ultimately, of course, Rancher Baxter does something heinous, Boss and Charley come back into town, and a whole lot of men meet their maker.

Kevin Costner, who directed the film, is clearly trying to re-create the glory films of old through Open Range, but despite all the right elements in place, the film manages to miss that mark. Maybe the problem is that it is generally lacking a sense of humor that might make such lines as "Barkeep, two whiskeys," go down a little smoother. Or maybe it is the long speeches that begin with such setups as "Charley, how long have we been riding together?" when Boss damn well knows. Or perhaps it is the overblown sympathy for dogs and children from these two grizzled cowboys on which too much of the plot turns.

In any event, despite a gorgeous western landscape (filmed in British Columbia); decent acting, by Duvall in particular; and the classic western setup, Open Range too often feels ponderous and silly. (The particular exception to that is the final shootout, which is well written and choreographed and gives a good sense of how a gun battle might take up a whole small town.) To be fair to Costner-the-director, he has taken on a particularly difficult task, re-creating the classic western in an age far more cynical and fond of psychology than in the John Wayne '50s. Back then we could be satisfied with a good guy who just was -- now we need a tortured hero who finally tells his story while the camera pans the galaxy of stars overhead.

To do it right is a delicate balance and Costner and screenwriter Craig Storper just don't hit the mark. It doesn't mean, however, that with a few more tries, Costner couldn't. Three or four more attempts at the genre, and he might just get it right, combining the black-and-white morals that we crave with less-hackneyed writing and characterization.

-- Andrea Lucard

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