Open Range

on August 15, 2003 by Wade Major
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Kevin Costner certainly doesn't make it easy on himself. Following his 1990 Academy Awards triumph with "Dances With Wolves," the star-turned-filmmaker would go on to squander the better part of the '90s reverse-alchemizing Oscar gold into box office lead, laying a series of eggs all but unprecedented for a double-Oscar winner. Then, just as audiences and critics seem relegated to writing him off entirely--as both a filmmaker and an actor--he returns with one of 2003's best films in "Open Range."

Winsomely adapted by Craig Storper from Lauran Paine's novel "The Open Range Men," Costner's film is a classic western in every sense--white hats and black hats doing battle for the soul of the American dream on the edge of the frontier. Set in 1882, a year nestled between the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, "Open Range" finds America at a crossroads, its future to be determined not by edicts handed down from on high but by the moral rectitude of average cowboys like Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner), prairie cattlemen who make the mistake of driving their herd through the land of a bitter rancher named Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). The Irish-born Baxter cares little for the legal free-grazing rights granted to the likes of Waite and Spearman--their presence on his land offends his sense of caste and threatens the power he wields over the local townsfolk. But Spearman and Waite aren't looking for a fight--only justice. Problem is, Baxter also happens to "own" the town sheriff (James Russo), making it a matter of time before events conspire to place Waite and Spearman in a time-honored quandary: kill or be killed; see justice served or die trying.

Though it might verge on sacrilege to even think such, it's hard to resist comparing Costner's direction to the very best of John Ford. Like Ford, he appreciates the power of cinematography and sprawling vistas, employing the visual splendor of the open range to elevate his characters' mythic stature, most notably that of Annette Bening as the tough-skinned woman whose wholesome pioneer heart Waite hopes to win. It's a trick at which many other capable directors have failed, more often overwhelming story and character with empty spectacle. But Costner is not simply making a western. He's sharing the battered emotions and most intimate details of his characters' world-weary lives, fearlessly allowing the film to develop at a pace determined by its inhabitants--moseying when the heroes mosey, and standing bravely by their side as they unleash hell.

The staple elements are familiar--bits and pieces of "Unforgiven," "Shane," "High Noon" and countless others--but the movie's heart belongs to Costner, who has endowed the picture with his own unflinching belief in the principles it extols. If only more filmmakers had such courage. Starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter and Diego Luna. Directed by Kevin Costner. Written by Craig Storper. Produced by Kevin Costner, David Valdes and Jake Eberts. A Buena Vista release. Western. Rated R for violence. Running time: 139 min

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