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OPEN RANGE

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon
Director:  Kevin Costner
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2:35:1
Studio: Buena Vista
Features:  See Review
Length:  139 minutes
Number of Discs:  2
Release Date:  January 20, 2004

“I haven't been looking out for you to have you go out this way.  The world ain't a perfect place, Button, but you've got unfinished business. So you come back, ya hear me now?   You come back.”

Film ***

Boss Spearman, played wonderfully by Robert Duvall, opens up to Button (Diego Luna), a young Mexican who travels with him and manages to get into trouble now and then, including the above scene in which he is unconscious and suffering from a severe concussion after being left for dead by men working for Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon).  Baxter and his men are obviously the bad guys, since they even killed Tig, their dog.      

I happened to be in Chattanooga, Tennessee on business and wanted a good diversion.  Open Range, especially on the big screen, was an excellent one.   Its biggest strength is that its emotions slowly come to a boil as does the violence without letting the violence overtake the emotional climax as so often happens in action movies.  It is almost as though the heroes exorcise their own demons as they try to save the town from itself.

It is hard not to draw comparisons between this movie and Dances With Wolves since Costner starred in and directed both westerns.  But Robert Duvall clearly is the lead here, which helps the otherwise rather mundane story.  The plotline that should not be overlooked is Annette Bening's entirely believable portrayal of the doctor's sister Sue Barlow, who everyone assumes is actually his wife.  This delays the inevitable tension when her and Charley Waite (Costner).  We get the impression that she knows as much about medicine as the doc, but of course she waits on the men and is clearly the subordinate when the doctor is around, since women and medical school could not even be used in the same sentence back then.   Bening plays a strong character in a strong way, going so far as to walk right out in front of the gunmen to demand that they stop shooting so she can administer first aid to Button.  She also demands that she will not wait for Waite forever. 

The cinematography and score are as breathtaking as Dances.  The story is simple:  Costner and Duvall are longtime herders and they roam freely throughout the west, but the big boss of the town, Baxter does not appreciate free rangers and wants them gone.  So he beats up one of their helpers, Mose (Abraham Benrubi) when he comes to town for provisions, and threatens them when they come get him out of jail.  This starts the downward spiral of revenge so common in westerns.  Whereas Costner's character was a fish out of water in Dances, and so his usual style of “acting” worked wonderfully.  In this movie, though, as he admits in his commentary track, he often seems like a bystander and accidentally nods and forgets to act his part now and then. 

It is a beautiful film and a simple story well-told despite its lack of originality.  Costner can act when he wants too, though; he is both masculine and vulnerable at the same time in his scenes with Bening, and as tough as she and Duvall are, Costner stands up to them both.

One of my favorite scenes occurs later in the film in a general store when our heroes buy some Cuban cigars and Swiss chocolate before they go off to the showdown.  I have to admire men who want to try a few of the finer things in life before getting their heads blown off.

Video ****

Crystal clear, no problems, which is all the more remarkable because half the scenes are in rainy darkness.

Audio ****

DTS works wonderfully; my only criticism is that as usual in Costner's movies half of the dialogue is mumbled.  The soundtrack is also very derivative; I even hear Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra” quoted in the opening scenes.  But I can't fault the sound engineers for that, so…

Features **

Costner's solo commentary track meanders all over the place but at least he opens up to things that he tried to do in the movie and is far more personal than most directors.  The documentaries are OK; apparently it was difficult for Costner to get funding and all of the usual problems in making films, which is bizarre considering this is the man who made Dances with Wolves.   There are also deleted scenes and a music video, which are interesting but not enough to justify the two-disc set in my opinion.

Summary:

Nothing groundbreaking here but as someone who never loved westerns much, I am starting to like them more and more.  Robert Duvall continues to be the man's man of modern films.   The film does get better with repeated viewings and I hope to see at least one more from Kevin Costner.