"Open Range," being touted as director-actor Kevin Costner's (2002's "Dragonfly
") western follow-up to 1990's Oscar-winning "Dances with Wolves," should get its Academy Award aspirations out of its system quickly, because lightning most certainly hasn't struck twice. Thoroughly cookie-cutter and cliched, the film doesn't succeed as a western or as a motion picture, in general, because this same type of story has been told too many times before, and with a great deal more depth and energy. At 140 minutes, and with its opening 90 minutes as slooooooow as molasses, "Open Range" is far from the worst film of the year, but it does test one's endurance like no other.
The time is the post-Civil War era of 1882, as Native Americans have been driven out of their homes and people have begun to settle in the west. Earnest Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and the more hot-tempered Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) are long-time cattle drivers threatened by a nearby town's owner, Denton Baxter, who wants their herd for himself and despises free grazing. To make his feelings known, Baxter and his henchmen kill one of their partners, the agreeable Mose (Abraham Benrubi), and leave the other, a well-meaning orphan named Buttons (Diego Luna), for dead. Taking Buttons to the local doctor to get better, Charley meets the doctor's single sister, Sue (Annette Bening), whom he takes a liking to. Meanwhile, Boss and Charley plot to seek revenge on Baxter and his men to prove the wrong they have caused, reclaiming their lawful rights as herdsmen in the process.
The plot of "Open Range" is so simple in its conception that it would be easy to imagine a taut and old-fashioned western being made out of it. Unfortunately, director Kevin Costner and screenwriter Craig Storper's misguided way of thinking is, why make a to-the-point 90-minute film when it can be drug out to almost two-and-a-half hours? So bothersomely deliberate and unfocused is the pacing that it renders whatever effectiveness might have come out of the story and characters inert. It doesn't help that there is no true historical relevance offered beyond the town's differing viewpoints concerning property and free grazing. What we are left with is a straightforward story that refuses to be straightforward through its stubbornness to break out the editing shears.
As Charley Waite, a man who hasn't yet gotten hold of his anger when others do him wrong, Kevin Costner fails in giving the viewer a reason to care about him. Mostly, he is a dullard. Better is Robert Duvall, a superb veteran actor who could play the role of Boss Spearman in his sleep but is no less superb because of this. In one of the movie's few emphatic moments, Boss buys an expensive candy bar from the local store owner and then offers him a piece of it when he finds that the owner has never had the money to taste it himself. Duvall handles this scene with true warmth and free of any condescension.
As Sue, Annette Bening (1999's "American Beauty
") does wonders with a part that is really nothing more than the "love interest" simply through her astute facial expressions and body language. Bening should be commended for holding her own against Costner and, especially, Duvall even when there is little for her to do. Less successful is the ineffective romance between Sue and Charley. Director Costner places too much emphasis on this subplot in the picture's final scenes when not enough time has been given to it prior to make its conclusion emotionally rewarding.
With only one gunfire occurring before the last 30 minutes, things finally spring to life when the exciting and expertly crafted climactic shoot-out arrives, but by then, it is too little, too late. Adding insult to injury, Costner rarely even takes advantage of his luscious scenery of green fields and wide open spaces, preferring to shoot most of his scenes indoors or on close-ups. Doing no favors to the western genre, which has been ailing for years with the likes of 2001's "American Outlaws
" and "Texas Rangers
," "Open Range" is dreary, slight, and preposterous in its mawkish sincerity.