Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 02, 2003 9:53 pm 
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God damn, Ah thank Ah've sayn all this b'fore

Kevin Costner has produced a well made, well acted, good looking, but conventional western starring himself as the faithful sidekick, Robert Duvall as his Boss (and that’s his only name), and Diego Luna as the young hired hand, Button. Three plains dogs they are, and the ill-fated Percy (Michael Jeter) makes a fourth, and they’ve got a herd of cattle they’re moving across the country grazing on the land God made. Only trouble is, some folks don’t like outsiders making like home on their range. Not the wicked self-made Irish landowner Michael Gambon plays, anyway, who, being the landowner, owns the land, and has the local town in the palm of his hand, to create what law and disorder with as he likes. His Denton Baxter has no truck with the land God made: it’s his land, damn it, he owns the saloon, and the sheriff works for him. When Percy goes into town he doesn’t come back, and the town becomes a battleground between good and evil, the law of the open range and the law of the lawless landowner who wants it all under his thumb.

There you have the plot. Michael Gambon is a little like that bad Man from Bodie in Welcome to Hard Times who can wipe out a whole settlement in the course of one very nasty and destructive afternoon. Before long the free range cowhands have some serious injuries to deal with, Percy is dead and Button is unconscious, there’s a huge showdown coming, and in the meantime Boss and Charley Waite (that’s Costner’s moniker in the piece) are spending a lot of time at Doc Barlow’s house, where Waite runs into Annette Benning.

It’s with this love interest between Sue Barlow and Waite that things become painfully sincere, and the movie tries for an upbeat resolution the old westerns rarely required. There are a lot of corpses laying around after that showdown is done, but Sue and Charley are only thinking of their wedding day as the old boys ride off to deliver their herd wherever they’re supposed to be going. Whew! What an interlude. Open range cowpokin’ sure is a load a work.

Percy and Button spar like playful cubs out in the wild while Percy lives, and Button is like a son to Boss, who rescued him from scrounging on the street of some other godforsaken town without a word of English (he’s become quite idiomatic after three years of wandering the range with Boss & Co. tutoring him by the audio-lingual method). Boss – it’s one of the humorous touches – doesn’t want to reveal his real name (Honeybottom) and Waite doesn’t want anybody knowing his (Postelthwaite) but before the final showdown they tell each other for the first time in ten years who they are on the dotted line -- but swear if they live they'll not tell a living soul.

What works in Open Range is that you get a sense of how exposed the cowboys are out there ( I guess that’s why they keep themselves so much to themselves), and yet how fragile they and (like the town of Hard Times) this town Denton Baxter rules is too. But if they’re all so fragile and it’s so wild and desolate and lonely out here, how come there’s a full symphony orchestra to play at top volume every time anybody walks from one shot to another or mounts a horse to trot off?

It’s this sweeping music that mires the often authentic-feeling movie in conventionality – and then that love story. Poor Annette. She deserves better. She has been scarily good in things like The Grifters; she’s just a worn out cowgirl by Rogers and Hammerstein in Open Range. How painfully, painfully sincere her final speeches are! By the standards of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man or even Clint Eastwood’s arty westerns, this very creditable Costner effort (his own acting is never embarrassing here, and sometimes even pretty darn good) just plum fades into the sunset. It all comes to seem a tremendous amount of honest and well meant effort to do something that’s been done, and done, and done before.

I’d like to see how the Polish brothers would do a shoot-em-up western like this one though.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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