Western Expansion 

The best moments in Open Range are the ones where director Kevin Costner doesn’t try to force his material

The best moments in Open Range are the ones where director Kevin Costner doesn’t try to force his material

Director/star Kevin Costner’s new Western Open Range should probably be leaner. The film’s plot is minimal, having to do with a team of 1880s cattle drivers (led by Costner as “Charley” and Robert Duvall as “Boss”) tussling with a rancher who objects to their moving a herd across his property. Boss and Charley are threatened, two of their colleagues are shot, and efforts to rally the support of nearby townsfolk (including a helpful nurse named Sue, played by Annette Bening) lead to a climactic shoot-out that Costner positions as the inevitable end to the inner violence unleashed by the Civil War. It’s all a little heavy for a movie that’s nowhere near as profound or elemental as Clint Eastwood’s essay-Western Unforgiven, and Costner labors over both the setup and the wind-down, trying to add the kind of heft that classic oater helmers like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher achieved in half the time.

But if Open Range had been trimmed, the best part of the movie would probably have hit the cutting room floor: the enjoyable hour-long stretch in the middle, when Boss and Charley (and occasionally Sue) just sit around and talk. They talk about their pasts, they speculate on whether they have a future, they enjoy a drink and a smoke, and they marvel at the incongruity of wet, muddy bodies in elegantly decorated parlors. Even though Open Range promises to be a movie about the freedom to roam on unfenced American land, the story begins with the heroes being penned in by a rainstorm, and they really never leave the area where they make camp. Costner’s willingness to explore stasis—more than his attempts to deepen the romance or make the gunplay meaningful—shows that the director might just know what he’s doing. Good Westerns are often about the majesty of the outdoors, but they’re also about finding a place to rest and staying put.

—Noel Murray


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