Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

Kevin Costner plays stoic better than anyone alive. He's so adept at being serious that you wonder if maybe he's had his smile surgically removed. Not that this seriousness has helped any at the box-office lately. Costner's is a fading star, and I personally think it's because he refuses to lighten up. Heavy-handedness may have served him well in JFK and The Untouchables, but for God's sake, mix it up a little. Waterworld, The Postman, Dragonfly, jeez! Quit raining on the parade. For me, the most watchable Costner movies are those where he lightens, and loosens, up. Fandango, Bull Durham, Tin Cup. Costner can be fun. His latest, Open Range, gives us a glimmer of hope. Though basically another Costner frown-fest, it has glimpses of the light-hearted actor inside.

Open Range tells the story of a small group of cowboys, free-grazer, who wander their herd to and fro across the vast prairie. At the end of the nineteenth century, as the last of the open land was being claimed and bought up, there were serious clashes between farmers and ranchers, as well as between different groups of cattlemen. The question is, at heart, can a man go where he pleases in this wide open country of ours, or does one have the right to fence it in? Though this film falls squarely on the side of the free-grazer, there are valid points on both sides of the issue. The classic Shang outlined a similar story, though from an opposite point of view.

Coming head to head with the issue at hand, Costner is joined by the inimitable Robert Duvall and, in typical western fashion, things end up bloody. In fact, typical is a good way to describe this beautifully shot, but painfully predictable horse opera. The good guys are good, though one has a dark secret. The bad guys are bad and riddled with snidely cowardice. The shoot-out is loud and exciting, and who could doubt that the hero will get the girl in the end. It's obvious that Costner, who also directed, is trying to repair his reputation by going back to his roots, to the genre that proved his most successful with the stellar Dances With Wolves. I wish, however, that he would have taken a few more chances, shaken things up a little and given us a little more to think about, much like Clint Eastwood did in his amazing Unforgiven.

Open Range is by no means bad, or even boring. It's just not special. It tells it's story with Costner's signature heavy-handedness, but it gets the job done, and, as I said, it's beautiful to look at. Rarely have I seen the old west depicted with such vibrancy of color. Actually, I think my main problem with the movie had more to do with Annette Bening's side story than it did with anything else. Bening plays the sister of a doctor in the small frontier town where all the action takes place. Because she's a big star whose character is single, as is Costners, the filmmakers just seem to assume that we the audience will buy that the two will automatically fall in love. Now, I'm not saying I wouldn't believe it, but there should be some spark, some chemistry, some indication that these two characters care at least a little for each other that builds through the story. Instead we are treated to a rush of emotion and professions of love unnaturally crammed into the last twenty minutes. I just didn't see it.

Another problem I had with the film had nothing really to do with the film itself. I am disturbed at how comfortable we are becoming with violence. I know, I know, shoot-em-ups have their own rules of decorum, unless said shoot-em-up is attempting to shed light on the graphic and brutal nature of the old west, i.e. the aforementioned Unforgiven. Open Range is somewhere in between, but I'm fairly certain that a scene of angry citizens running down a terrified criminal and them shooting him point blank with a shotgun is not meant to be comical. Nevertheless, the audience whooper it up. I was also irritated that our movie began ten minutes late, and then we had to sit through an additional twenty minutes of ads and previews. One gentleman complained that it was taking too long to start the movie, but a lot of good it did. The projectionist was serving popcorn and couldn't be bothered.

Though it wasn't my favorite, Open Range is enjoyable and was a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. However, with a little bit of editing, I believe the story could be quickened; the romance either worked out or excised. This Costner film has potential, but it sticks firmly to the sulky Kevin formula. Grade: B

Open Range is rated R for violence and mild language.

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