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  • Reviewed Format: Wide Theatrical Release
  • Rated: R
  • Stars: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo
  • Writer: Craig Storper, based on the novel by Lauran Paine
  • Director: Kevin Costner
  • Distributor: Touchstone Pictures


Dances with Duvall

By Michael Tunison     August 15, 2003

If the big-screen western is lying dead in a Boot Hill grave, as critics and fans alike have bemoaned for years, then somebody forgot to tell Kevin Costner about it.

As an actor, Costner gave a couple of his signature performances in director Lawrence Kasdan's latter-day horse operas SILVERADO and WYATT EARP. Behind the camera, he won an Oscar for his direction of the 1990 revisionist western DANCES WITH WOLVES, then followed it up with his overly picked-on post-apocalyptic spin on the genre, 1997's THE POSTMAN. Indeed, his passion for the western only seems to be rivaled by his long-running love affair with another all-American genre, the baseball flick.

So, it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that Costner would choose to head back down the dusty trail for his third directorial outing, OPEN RANGE. But where DANCES WITH WOLVES used the familiar western milieu as a way to pull viewers into a less frequently told story - the Indian perspective of the West's conquest - OPEN RANGE is a conscious return to the genre's classic mold. With a storyline build upon one of the archetypal western conflicts - the range war - the film hearkens back to the true cowboy pictures of the '30s through early '60s. The old-fashioned approach extends to everything from Costner's clean, spare direction to Craig Storper's character-centric script and Michael Kamen's quaint Americana score, which wouldn't have been out of place in a John Ford or Howard Hawks oater.

Adapted from Lauran Paine's novel, the story follows veteran cowpunchers "Boss" Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Wait (Costner) as they drive their small cattle herd across country that hasn't yet been fenced off by ranchers. While they've been working together for 10 years, the warm, boisterous Boss and more laconic Charley know virtually nothing about each other's pasts - the way Charley in particular, clearly haunted by something in his mysterious background, seems to like it.

Then events conspire to put the heroes at odds with a powerful local rancher (Michael Gambon) who has no use for wandering "free-grazers" like the Boss' outfit. Events take a violent turn, and Boss and Charley seem to be the only ones around with the grit necessary to stand up to the ruthless group running the nearby town. Busy as they are with facing off against the bad guys, however, Charley finds time to get involved with a kind-hearted woman (Annette Bening) who ends up caring for a wounded young member of Boss' outfit (Diego Luna).

While there's little doubt all this eventually will be resolved in the traditional western manner - with six-guns blazing - the care that Costner, Storper and company take in getting to that point will warm the hearts of those who have been waiting in vain since Clint Eastwood's 1992 milestone UNFORGIVEN for a respectable effort in the genre to come along (and getting only inexcusable dreck such as the Colin Farrell vehicle AMERICAN OUTLAWS and the James Van Der Beek-headlining TEXAS RANGERS to tide them over - oops, sorry to stir up bad memories).


Costner takes a big step toward getting the film to work simply by casting Duvall in a variation on his legendary Capt. Gus McCrae character from the 1988 TV miniseries adaptation of LONESOME DOVE. Duvall can hardly contain his joy at playing another sassy, life-loving old frontiersman, and his vibrant spirit lights up even the film's more generic dramatic elements in a way that's hard to resist.

For his part, Costner gets to play one of the "aw, shucks" humble, plainspoken protagonists that have always been his most appealing characters. Halfway between an Eastwood tough guy and an everyman from the Henry Fonda school, he's something of a classic western hero in his own right - and might be at the top of his career arc now if the genre were a little more popular. Adding a refreshing element to the proceedings is the always-engaging Bening, who defies the prevailing Hollywood trend by actually being in the same age bracket as her leading man - what a concept!

Costner's Eastwoodian, unadorned visual style is pretty much invisible - as he no doubt intends - until the film reaches its climactic series of gunfights, when he makes the interesting decision to film the action in an almost documentary-like, handheld style that deglamorizes the violence. Rather than a Sergio Leone-by-way-of-John Woo gun ballet, he presents a surprisingly realistic, chaotic world in which the bullets flying around really look like they might hurt somebody.

Unfortunately, Costner's enthusiasm for the material leads him to again indulge his most troublesome storytelling weakness by allowing the movie's running time to balloon up to 135 minutes - a tad more than the very straightforward story warrants. Concise Costner is not, and the best thing he could do for himself as a director is find a producer and/or editor able to counter his famously strong will and explain the whole "less is more" thing to him.

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