I was a big Kevin Costner fan during the late 1980s/early 1990s when he was making films like The Untouchables, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams. I avoided Dances With Wolves like the plague during all the insane Oscar hype that surrounded the movie’s release, but eventually saw it and enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Costner, with Oscar wins for producing and directing Dances With Wolves, was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in 1991.
Then his career took a nosedive when he followed up Wolves with box office flops like Wyatt Earp, The Postman, and the much-maligned Waterworld. Though Costner still found steady work after those flops, he never really regained his status as one of Tinsel Town’s most popular leading men.
Though I usually end up liking Costner’s films more often than not, I didn’t feel that way about his 2003 western Open Range. I rented the DVD last weekend, and could barely make it through the bloated 139-minute running time.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Costner stars as Charley Waite, a stereotypically reticent cowboy with a past. He’s been riding for Boss Spearman (played by Robert Duvall) for 10 years, but neither one is the type to spill his guts at the nightly campfire. After all that time together, they don’t even know each other’s real names.
As the film opens, Boss, Charley and their two assistants Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna) are driving their cattle across an open range. They try to steer clear of towns and just stick to their own business, but sometimes they need to go on supply runs. Mose rides into a small town one day to stock up on necessities for the four of them, but doesn’t return when he was supposed to. Boss and Charley investigate the matter, only to discover that Mose got into a bar fight, was badly beaten, and is now spending time in jail.
That doesn’t sound like something Mose would do, so Boss and Charley dig around until they get to the bottom of the matter. It turns out that the town is run by a man named Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who doesn’t like the concept of free grazing. That’s his land Boss and Charley are using, and he wants them off. Beating up Mose was just a message.
Boss and Charley aren’t the type of guys to be pushed around that easily, so they ride out to where some of Dexter’s men are camping, ambush them, and scare them away — after figuring out that Dexter’s real plan is to steal Boss and Charley’s cattle, not let them move on. That incident escalates the situation to the point where Dexter sends men in to shoot Mose, Button, and Charley’s dog. Button survives with serious injuries; Mose and the dog must be buried.
From that point forward, the film deals with the way Boss and Charley prepare for what they know will be a showdown with Dexter’s men. Of course, it’s only the two of them, so they’ll be severely outnumbered, but as with most westerns, the good guys come out on top.
My Reaction: Now that I think about it, not a whole heck of a lot actually happened during Open Range, which makes the long running time even more inexplicable. Sure, there was some character development going on here, but that didn’t justify the long stretches of boring scenes.
For instance, I didn’t see the point of the scene where Boss and Charley went into the general store to buy chocolate and cigars. I realize that it gave the filmmakers a chance to show that Charley was falling in love with Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) because of the way he picked out china for her, but still… that was a long-ass scene with very little in terms of payoff.
Also, I thought free range grazing was kind of a ridiculous reason to start that major feud. I mean, this kind of thing probably did happen back then or whatever, but that hardly makes it a suitable topic for a Hollywood movie. The only thing I kept thinking during the film was, “Wait, all these men are dying because of where some cattle are grazing? Really?” The stakes just didn’t seem high enough to me.
The only thing I liked about this movie was the understated love story between Charley and Sue. Usually I abhor these types of subplots because they tend to drag the film down, but in this case the opposite was true. I was more interested in those two characters than what was going on with the Dexter feud and the cattle.
Overall, the abundance of non-eventful scenes in Open Range doomed the film in my eyes. I don’t need constant shoot ‘em up action, but a bit of conflict would be nice. The shootout on Main Street was well done, as was the love story, but not much else was worth watching. I give this movie 2 stars out of 5.