Kevin Costner, along with the even less prestigious Val Kilmer, is an actor who has unfortunately become somewhat of a sad joke to the general public nowadays. The commercial and critical flops of “Waterworld” (1995) and “The Postman” (1997) (the former of which I’m actually quite fond of) damaged the sturdy reputation that Costner had earned after respectable hits such as “The Untouchables” (1987), ‘Field of Dreams” (1989) and the previously reviewed “JFK” (1991) ((See post J)). With his career in decline after the mega-flop of 97’s The Postman it seemed Costner sought to regain his reputation as a solid director and actor with a repeat of his multiple Oscar winning epic “Dances with Wolves” (1990). That repeat became another incredibly vivid take on life in the frontier, only this time told with a somewhat more mature and reflective perspective.
Open Range is a fine example of the modern-day Western, a genre that has been in a steady decline since the 1960’s which has only enjoyed brief revivals thanks to directors such as Eastwood, Jarmusch and Cosmatos. The keyword there unfortunately being brief! Range may appear to act no different from the list of recently produced Western’s over the past 20 years, however it is by no means one that should be overlooked. The story revolves around two aging cowboy’s, Bluebonnet “Boss” Spearman (played by the wonderfully believable Robert Duvall) and Charley Postlewaite (Costner) who becomes suspicious of a local town’s landlord after one of their younger cowboy’s goes missing during a cattle drive. Tensions between the landlord Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and the two cowboys rise as the story progresses, culminating in a showdown between Baxter’s several men and Spearman’s battle-hardened experience thanks to his past as a soldier in the American Civil War.
All of the elements for an entertaining Western have been added carefully into the mix by Costner, whose reputation with Western’s is not one to be questioned…despite what you may think of Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp” (1994). Beautiful landscapes, a traditionally classic score provided by Michael Kamen, ruthless villains and the haunted past of our hero are all slowly revealed onto the screen as the narrative progresses in an almost meditative fashion. The film’s opening is that of our main character’s herding cattle before rain from the Western plains swamp them in for the night; giving us as an audience plenty of time to discover who these very well played characters are as they camp out in their tiny tent and share dialogue. As mentioned before Duvall is superbly believable as the retired Civil War soldier who fought for his beliefs and was left bitterly haunted by his past actions. Costner, taking the helm of director with fantastic vision, takes a seat on the back-burner, most likely knowing full well that Duvall would outshine him on screen.
The fact that Open Range has become somewhat forgotten by the mainstream public is a shame but is not hard to see why. The incredible power of Eastwood’s Western revival “Unforgiven” (1992) has still managed to over-take any other follow up that other directors have brought to the table, with perhaps only Cosmatos’ 1993 hit “Tombstone” managing to steal some of the iconography from the early 1990’s. Open Range reaffirms Costner’s place as both a talented and credible director who knows what he’s doing but also as an experienced actor that has been treated unfairly by the press. For fans of the genre it’s a must watch as the harsh world that was the frontier is captured perfectly on the screen. One notable sequence is when Duvall’s character walks into a sweet shop an hour before the big shootout in the town begins to purchase an expensive bar of chocolate for himself; only to later share half of it with the poor clerk and his wife who cannot afford to eat it themselves. Michael Gambon is thoroughly disgusting as the villain and, although whilst not being the most original of antagonists, certainly provides you with enough zealous hatred that you’ll be longing for his death shortly after his introduction. Although not a perfect film, Range manages to suck you into the world of the Western whilst providing many memorable and entertaining scenes to boot in a very short space of time, what more could you honestly ask for?