“Open Range” is an old-fashioned western that takes its time, but by the end of the movie the cattle, the characters, and the audience are all where they need to be.
That is, assuming that there is an audience for a western that is not post-modern, ironic, or elegaic. Given the distance from the era of the big westerns and the current feelings of global and economic fragility, it may be time for some cowboy heroes again.
After all, there is no better icon of the American spirit than the cowboy. When we think of emblematic American figures, we don’t think of those guys in the powdered wigs and silk breeches arguing about the Bill of Rights. We think of the guy on the horse, pausing to look off into the horizon as he crosses the prairie, the rugged individual in search of manifest destiny with his own deeply felt sense of justice and freedom. It is impossible not to be stirred by the sight of men on sun-dappled horses cantering across the prairie under an endless blue sky.
That does not mean that these characters are not complex or that they don’t deal with complex issues. One thing this movie does well is showing us the way individuals struggle with the past and try to set a course for the future in a land where new physical and social structures are being created by people who came out west to get away from both. As one says, “A man can get lost out here. Forget that there’s people and things that ain’t as simple as this.”
Stories set in the old west are like those set in a submarine; they fascinate us because they take a group of people with no access to established civilization and give them a conflict to resolve.
Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charley (Kevin Costner, who also directed) are decent men who respect the decency in each other. They have worked together for ten years, driving cattle across the prairie. They do not know much of the details of each other’s pasts, but they know everything about each other’s character, and that suits them. Also working for Boss are Mose (Abraham Benrubi of television’s “ER”) and Button (Diego Luna), a teenager he took in as a young orphan.
They come to an area they have been through before, but something has changed. A man named Baxter (Michael Gambon) now owns the land and most of the town, and he does not want cattle grazing on his land. The law is no help — Baxter owns the whole town, including the sheriff. The nearest federal marshall is too far away to arrive in time to make a difference. Boss, Charley, and Baxter will have to sort it out themselves. When Baxter’s men come after Mose and Button, Boss and Charley have to respond, not for their cattle or their fortunes, but because they cannot allow anyone to bully them. They believe that “There’s some things that gnaw at a man worse than dying,” but must still think carefully about past choices and regrets in calibrating a response.
Members of the town are drawn into the conflict, including stable manager (Michael Jeter) and a doctor with a strong, brave sister (Annette Benning). Ultimately, there is a terrible conflict, but one that has been honestly earned by the characters and the story-tellers. The same can be said of the ultimate resolution.
Costner the director does well by his actors, particularly Duvall, and the shoot-out is tense and kinetic. The dialogue feels authentically old without being stilted. Today’s audiences may get squirmy in the slow early stretches, but those who are patient will be rewarded with a respectful saga that pays tribute to America’s past as a foundation for its future.
Parents should know that the movie has intense shoot-out violence and characters are killed, but most of the violence is closer to a PG-13 than an R. There is some strong language, including a brief reference to a whore. Characters drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about how conflicts get resolved in an isolated setting like this one. Why was it important for Boss and Charley to tell each other their names and some of their histories? What does it mean not to take a man’s confidence lightly? How did Baxter, Boss, and Charley justify their choices? It also might be worth discussing Balzac’s famous view that “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” Where are the descendants of Baxter and Charley today?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy loving tributes to the classic westerns, Silverado, also starring Costner, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And every family should watch some of the classics, including Red River, The Searchers, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Shane, and the best of the shoot-out at the OK Corral movies, My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan, and Victor Mature.