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Open Range

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"You had gills?"
Robert Duvall tries to understand kevin Costner's "Waterworld" character.

© 2003, Touchstone
All Rights Reserved

Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) are two cowboys taking their cattle across the American Midwest to sell off the herd. Along with two hired hands, Button (Diego Luna, "Y Tu Mama Tambien") and Mose (Abraham Benrubi, "ER"), they decide to make camp on the outskirts of a small frontier town when a raging storm approaches. The local law (led by Michael Gambon, the future Dumbledore in the next "Harry Potter" film) doesn't much care for "free grazers" like Spearman, and soon sets off a chain of events that requires Waite to return to his old Civil War gunfighter days in the name of justice and honor. Their lone solace from violence is a doctor's house, run by Sue (Annette Bening), a woman for whom Waite feels an immediate attraction.

I understand that the words "directed by Kevin Costner" will discourage even the most passionate film lover from attending "Open Range" (IMDb listing). Costner has amassed quite a crowd of opponents to his filmmaking style, mostly after the colossal failure of his 1997 epic "The Postman." While I will agree about the often extravagant nature of "The Postman," I stand behind it as a viable experience, as it is a film filled with small delights and gorgeous filmmaking, along with the earnestness that Costner brings to each of his films. "Open Range" returns Costner to the stage of his greatest success, the 1990 masterwork "Dances With Wolves." Though "Range" doesn't share the amiable sensibility of John Dunbar's journey of self discovery, it does bring Costner back to the old west, where the prairie spreads out as far as the eye can see, and the sun permanently hangs at magic hour.

Based on the novel by Lauran Paine, and adapted by Craig Storper, "Open Range" is another odyssey into a theme that all of Costner's films share: the idea of land ownership. It provides an interesting backdrop to what is, essentially, a two-character play about the changing nature of the cowboy. "Range" is Costner's most challenging film to date because it requires an audience to sit still for 135 minutes and just listen to characters. "Range" takes such great pride in developing the two leads that when the inevitable guns start firing in the final act, there's a real sense of danger that wouldn't ring true in a more quickly-paced production. "Range" is slow, but continually rewarding, basking in the glow of a traditional western, while retaining the intimate scope that Costner typically employs for his films.

Clint Eastwood has spent his career making classic westerns, often one right after the other. If any one actor could be heir to that throne, it's Costner. As a filmmaker, he knows exactly where to put his camera for the optimum shot, and he has a wonderful eye for casting. "Open Range" allows Costner to explore some of the lesser-known aspects of prairie life, most notably, the destructive effects a normal thunderstorm has on man-made items of civilization. As an actor, Costner's Charley Waite is as close to an iconic Eastwood role as anyone will find. A man of few words who has a gigantic streak of honor pulsing within him, Waite is a complex character for Costner, and he plays him without braggadocio or undue saintliness.

Unlike his other productions, Costner gives the lion's share of screen time to the other performers. Robert Duvall could do the role of Boss Speedman in his sleep (having touched a similar role before in "Lonesome Dove"), but the actor puts forth a wonderful sense of wistfulness. Annette Bening doesn't have all that strong of a part until the final moments, but her presence is felt, along with the brave decision by Costner to have Bening perform sans makeup. She's never looked more beautiful.

As mentioned before, the film is dialog- and photography-driven for most of its running time, as it slowly winds down to the climatic gunfight. Until this point, "Range" lulls the viewer in with its slow charms and restrained emotions. But once the guns are drawn, Costner opens up his film with a dazzling display of old west justice and violence. I appreciate the respectful, adult filmmaking of "Open Range, " but I adored how Costner made the violence count. Characters don't just get shot; they are blown down into the dirt by the loudest guns this side of "Carlito's Way." It's a perfect way to realize the destructive nature of the shootout, and it turns "Range" into an oater worth the long ride to get there.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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