Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi
If time travel is invented in our lifetime, one of the first streams of the continuum that I'd disrupt would involve the career of Kevin Costner. Sure, others would intend on doing noble things like jumping up and down on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963, but I'm just not that ambitious.
I would go back to the early '80s and persuade the young and energetic Costner, bent on being a star, to work for famed producer Roger Corman. I'd eventually convince Corman to hire Costner as a director, then watch as Corman's company schooled the 25-year old in the ways of thrift and brevity, much as his lean producing values did for directors such as Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard before him. The honed and chiseled directorial skills of Kevin Costner in the 21st century would eventually be on par with legends such as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Ford.
Ford and Hawks forged an allegiance early in their careers to finding the most necessary scenes to tell the story. And even though Costner is one helluva director he doesn't have that training. There's a feeling of padding, of persistent saddlebags, as the movie jogs along, that keeps Open Range out of the arena of some of the classic Westerns. And, having said that, it's still one of the best Westerns in the last ten years, seven steps ahead of shiny-badge blasters like Tombstone and two steps shy of the nearly unimpeachable Unforgiven.
You don't walk out feeling that way, that's for certain, but the characters and the canvas of Open Range stick with you, inhabiting corners of your recollection. Unlike Seabiscuit, which already seems to recede from memory, the further you get away from Range, the more the film swells.
The opening title is in cursive, a dainty flourish compared to the scenery unfolding behind it; that takes greater meaning later on. We're on a small cattle drive on the unnamed expanse of the great West in 1882. The boss of the outfit is named just that, Boss Spearman (played by the irreplaceable Robert Duvall). He's backed up by Charley Waite (Costner), a quiet, angry loner. Also on the crew is a young firebrand named Button (played by Diego Luna of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and Mose, a lumbering child-man (the very good Abraham Benrubi). It's hard and dirty living ("We're pretty rank," Charley later apologizes).
When Mose is sent back to the burgeoning town of Harmonville, he's savagely beaten by goons in the service of rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and the corrupt Sheriff Poole (James Russo), and thrown in jail. Spearman and Waite bail Mose out and find that "free rangers" such as themselves, men moving and grazing cattle across land purportedly owned, but not yet fenced, by ranchers such as Baxter, are not welcome in the extreme. Spearman and Waite take Mose to the local doctor whose assistant is Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), a woman the two men both mistake for the doctor's wife (she's his sister). Interest immediately flares between Waite and Ms. Barlow, but love has to take second place to self-protection and justice as the war escalates between the free rangers and Baxter's men.
This all culminates in a shoot-out in town, a tour de force for Costner, and one that ranks with that of High Noon and its doppelganger, Rio Bravo. It's both shockingly immediate and random and then drawn out and deliberate as the wounded, rattled men plan their next attack. We huddle behind the legs of horses and cower and charge with both protagonists and antagonists. To the film's everlasting credit, we're not sure who is going to come out of it alive.
Though the shoot-out is the centerpiece of the film, it isn't its raison d'Ítre. Costner is working on a broader canvas than that, though much different than his debut, Dances With Wolves (which won him an Oscar). He takes pains to create almost an arranged marriage of the free but hardscrabble living of the range, and the cloistered but comfortable living in the town. It's that cursive scrawl placed over the wide expanse all over again.
The remarkably good supporting cast includes the late, great Michael Jeter as a liveryman who is, initially, the only friend that Spearman and Waite encounter. He brings an earthy believability to the Walter Brennan role, while Diego Luna largely disappoints in the Ricky Nelson role as Button (granted he has to spend most of his time flat on his back after Button is shot by Baxter's men).
The true star of this film, however, is director Kevin Costner, much more so than the actor Kevin Costner. Though he's fine in front of the camera, there's a talent that is superior when he's behind it. Let's hope he commits himself to his place there.