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June 20, 2007

DVD Journal: "Open Range"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


"Open Range." Kevin Costner's Western is about what happens when a group of "free-rangers" -- cattlemen with no fixed abode, who graze their small herd of cattle on open land -- are assaulted by frontier-closing empire-builders.

The film is over-long, slow-moving, mournful, obsessed by mortality, and underbudgeted -- you've never seen a cattle-raising movie with so few cattle. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. It delivers solid moral dilemmas of a perennial, man's-gotta-be-a-man sort; mucho powerful acting (of a restrained, minimal sort); and a lot of blue-green landscapes, magnificent horses, and guns, of a sculpturally beautiful yet deadly sort.

With her careworn beauty, her erotic daring, and her forthright emotionality, Annette Bening gives the film a strong and poignant sense of something at stake. And Costner himself is awfully good, in a dignified / introverted way, as a Civil War vet who has had to turn himself, with many regrets, into a killing machine.

And then there's Robert Duvall. As a shrewd old geezer who's tougher than he looks, Duvall is beyond-good; he's perfectly magnificent. Duvall is so reliably superb that it seems to me we may be in danger of taking him too much for granted -- "Oh, there he is, he's always amazing." He has got to be one of the least showy major actors ever. But, though he may play his cards close to the vest, he does so very resourcefully -- and they're some high-ranking, soulful cards. His ability to bring an idea to gritty, full-bodied life is awe-inspiring. His character here isn't some lovable old cartoon coot content so long as he remembers to take his fiber powder. Instead, he's a canny son of a bitch, full of gristle, and with a lot of ornery living and enticing plans left in him. Duvall gets my nomination for Greatest Living American Actor.

A couple of notes:

  • The film's climactic showdown struck me as awfully well-done, and brilliantly sustained. It isn't anything like what we're used to these hyperkinetic days; it isn't full of slow motion, tricky "Matrix"-like camerawork, or Joel Silver pyrotechnics. Instead, it's formal and distanced, almost stately (all of which makes it all the more terrifying). The guns pop, the bullets ricochet god knows where, the townspeople want to watch but need to hide ... Costner and his cast really make you feel how heavy and slow those beautiful old guns were. They also drive home the fact that the guys handling them aren't all in the best shape imaginable. These aren't athletes and stuntmen. They're aging businessguys and tired workers hauling around big guts and heavy limbs while fighting uncomfortable clothing.

  • I may not be the hugest fan of Costner-the-actor, but I confess that there are a couple of things Costner is drawn to that I admire, applaud, and root for. First: He wants to revive and depict heroism. This was true even in semi-comic, romantic turns like "Bull Durham." Though he doesn't do dashing, or beautiful, or noble -- his style is more bitter and regretful -- this strikes me as understandable. In a world where everyone is engaged in tearing everything down -- where irreverence is all -- it may take quiet conviction and lonely guts to assert as basic and constructive a thing as masculine heroism.

    Second: Thematically, Costner likes to play up the role of honor and shame in a man's life. There are some things, in other words, that no self-respecting man can stand for, and certain things such a man has to do. Real men know this; real women understand it. What this means in the universe of "Open Range" is that we're expected to understand that there can come a time when killing's the right thing to do. This is a film, in other words, that takes it for granted that there are some lines that can't be crossed and some bad guys who need to be put down. What to make of the fact that the film didn't attract a lot more criticism than it did for its near-"Dirty Harry" morality?

I wrote back here about the strange and wonderful claim that Westerns can stake on the male imagination. I wrote here about Richard S. Wheeler's masterful Western novel "Flint's Gift."



UPDATE: Ed Gorman recommends and reviews a lot of western movies.

posted by Michael at June 20, 2007


I saw Open Range and kept thinking all the way through: hey, this is a good film, a damn good film. Then why is it that it didn't really stick with me? Why isn't it really memorable. Maybe it's that it was just too sincere. There has to be an element of crazy in a film to make it stick. And Open Range doesn't have that.

Posted by: ricpic on June 20, 2007 6:28 PM

Michael, I have to agree about Duvall. Well observed.

Haven't seen 'Open Range' but I'm just a touch worried about revisionist realism in the Western. In fact, I worry about this trend in anything that has a natural and time-honoured appeal. Even when it's very well done. For example, Tennyson's bored Ulysses misses the point of the Odyssey's tough, wily and prankish main character. The oh-so-charged-but-tentative re-bonding of Penelope with her husband assures us of something better than Tennyson's summation of their later marriage.

Revisionism tends to rob us of those good things we crave without knowing why. So don't write Arthurian novels where the pagans are the good guys. Don't make Westerns without flawed loners enforcing ultimate justice. And don't write Sherlock Holmes novels (like that stupid Brazilian one I read) where the super-sleuth muffs the case. It's pointless, okay? Just don't do it!

And don't gimme no Camille-Paglia-personae-lit-crit reasons why it's okay...okay?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on June 20, 2007 8:54 PM

The problem with most Westerns, as I see it, is that the clothes and hats aren't dirty- and dumpy-looking enough, the characters not smelly-looking enough. Open Range got it pretty close in this respect, and, yes, Duvall is mesmerizing. Another area that bothers me is language-as-conveyor-of-consciousness. Even though English was spoken in ca. 1870, I have a hunch that were we to time-travel back to the gun-slinger West, communication would be difficult. Open Range gets the dialogue better than just about any other Western I've seen, but something tells me that the way the old-timers talked and what they spoke about would be beyond any current screenwriters.

Posted by: Tim B. on June 21, 2007 7:57 AM

Add me to the list of Robert Duvall fans. He's wonderful, one of the best actors America has ever produced...and woefully under-utilized.

I haven't seen Open Range, but I have to endorse, in a general way, Robert Townshend's comments about revisionism.

Posted by: Judith on June 21, 2007 9:01 AM

Very interesting. Years ago, when Costner was hot-hot-hot (late eighties)I read an interview with him where he said he thought if there was anything that set him apart or explained his (then) success is choosing movies, it was that he had "a point of view." He felt that was pretty rare in Hollywood. It sounds like you agree---the a-man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do theme. Hokey to some Hollywood hipsters, perhaps, but he did have a "point of view." At the time, he also said that he hoped the films he made would help his kids understand why he had to be away from them so much---that they would see what he was trying to do. Not so sure he'll be right about that one. Sometimes a man's gotta be a dad, but I'll leave to his family to sort out.

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2007 10:01 AM

Ricpic -- I know what you mean about the movie being good not not especially memorable. But is it a touch of craziness it's lacking? Westerns are an interesting case, aren't they? They're generally so classical and formal ... So is it really craziness that gives 'em that extra sting that can make them memorable? Or maybe it's formality? Hmmm. Anyway, probably depends on the individual case. Still, I wonder if the sprawliness of "Open Range" doesn't diffuse a bit of its impact. Had it been more condensed -- if more of it had been as organized and terse as that final shootout -- maybe it would have stayed in the mind more. But what is it that makes people achieve that degree of intensity? So maybe it is craziness. Hmm.

Robert T. -- Duvall's amazing, isn't he? And has been for decades, and often in nothin' movies. I remember being amazed by his work in "Days of Thunder," for instance. As for "Open Range" ... Is it really revisionist? I wasn't struck by its revisionism as I watched it, I was more struck by how fervently it was espousing a kind of traditional approach to morality and manliness. It is grubbier and sprawl-ier than, say, '40s westerns -- it's definitely a post-'70s movie. But even so it seems to want to be a return to earlier values. But maybe I'm being dim.

Tim B. -- That sounds really smart. Life in oldtime cowboy America does seem to have been as foreign to us moderns as, say, life in Shakespeare's time was. Wouldn't it be cool to discover some real footage of frontier life circa 1870? I wonder what it would look like.

Judith -- I always thought Duvall was the underappreciated performer in "The Godfather" too. That combo of sheepishness and gratitude and strength stays with me still.

Annette -- That's really interesting, tks. (Was it so long ago Costner was hot? Wow.) He does seem to have a point of view, doesn't he? It may limit him a bit as an actor, strictly speaking. But it does make him surprisingly interesting to think about as a movie phenomenon ... Do his movies do anything for you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 21, 2007 10:51 AM

Costner had one of the most hot-hot-hot runs of modern movie actors, maybe second only to Tom Hanks' run in the nineties, where they just didn't miss. "The Untouchables", "No Way Out", "Bull Durham", "Field of Dreams", "JFK", "Dances with Wolves", "Robin Hood". The he hit "The Bodyguard" and played a psycho killer in "A Perfect World" (that awful Clint Eastwood movie which, as a critic said then---who wants to see Costner as "the bad guy" who kidnaps a kid?) and "Waterworld", and he left his wife, and seldom have any fallen so far so fast.

He just never quite recovered his box office clout---even if the movie is good, like, apparently, "Open Range". The risk of cultivating his on-screen persona is that audiences seemed somehow to feel genuinely betrayed by him when his personal life didn't turn out to be Elliot Ness's, and his screen role choices stopped seeming so noble. (It's almost like Costner was screaming to the world, when he picked "A Perfect World"---"I'm not entirely the man you think I am! I'm not faithful to my wife! I feel guilty! I have an ego! I'm not always there for my kids!" And we didn't really want to know that).

Having said that, though, although he may be "limited" as an actor, he does some things very, very well. Moments in "The Untouchables" and in "JFK"---when he genuinely conveyed a good man who was afraid he had walked into or uncovered a situation he maybe couldn't handle, or didn't want to even know about, but also knew he had to forge on. Even, really, "Field of Dreams". The fear and honor. Not cartoonish--like Rambo, "nothing scares me!" But all the emotions---actually, many things scare me, and sometimes I wish I could just go hide, but I must do this. The touching bravery of good men.

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2007 11:48 AM

George MacDonald Fraser dealt with the language issue in his "Hollywood History of the World", where he discusses Steve McQueen's reluctance to use real old-time western insults like "rascal" in a Western. He also mentioned that the John Wayne Western "True Grit" was memorable because of the language used. He pointed out that, whether or not the language used in "True Grit" was authentic, it certainly sounded different than today's speech...

I wonder, is period dialect going out in movies? Is this yet another thing that modern audiences are not supposed to be able to "relate to"?

Posted by: tschafer on June 21, 2007 12:34 PM

Thou hast it, tschafer, mayhap.

Posted by: dearieme on June 21, 2007 1:34 PM

Us bookpile bloggers are still looking for a picture of your DVD pile!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on June 21, 2007 3:18 PM

Somewhere deep in the past is a post I wrote about the sky in "Open Range." For once it seemed right and was really the canvas for the painting. Then I discovered that some woman sat at a computer screen and digitally painted the sky in every single frame. It was worth it! People say, "The land is a character in the story of the West," but they don't call this "big sky" country for nuthin'. Right now there's a thundercloud just through my kitchen window (I'm out of the crawl space now.) that is worth a million dollars if it could be replicated. It's electric and that's no metaphor.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 21, 2007 7:49 PM

I really liked this movie, too, and actually watched it again with Costner's commentary on the DVD. He really makes a number of very interesting observations; I really like the way he talks about his work.

Posted by: Kent on June 22, 2007 6:59 PM

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