The denouement of Open Range (2004), in which two veteran ‘free grazers’ blast their way through the local baddies, is undoubtedly what audiences will remember most about Kevin Costner’s new western. These scenes re-examine the genre’s approach to violence in a truly jarring fashion and play out with the same sonorous effect as the bank robbery in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Contrary to Heat though the cowboys of Open Range are shaky and nervous; the climax debunks any action movie tropes of precision gunplay and presents men who can’t aim straight or hit targets.
For the most part however Costner’s fourth film as director is a cautious and reigned-in affair. A modest tale of the age-old relationship between two quiet men, the bulk of this movie belies the ferocity and viscera of its ending. Costner, in a carefully restrained performance, plays cattle driver Charley Waite who along with his partner Boss Spearman (an ever graceful Robert Duvall) is moving his herd of cows across the plains of the frontier. And what a frontier it is! Somewhere between the look of a travel brochure photo and a Windows desktop, Costner’s West is a picture postcard image of lush grass, technicolour posies and radiant skies. True his compositions are epic and may even seem to dwarf the characters into mere dots but ,as a director, he is also acutely aware of the men themselves.
After the opening vignette Costner’s camera proceeds straight into the dirt and daily routine of Charley and his men. Like Unforgiven (1992) this film looks wonderful but is ultimately interested in the unglamorous reality of western life and seeks to present the banal rituals and adversities that were faced on a daily basis in the 1880s. It also wears a badge of violence clearly on its sleeve. When a member of Charley’s posse, Mose (ER’s Abraham Benrubi), is suddenly beaten in a shop brawl and then murdered Charley and Boss ride into Harmonville to find those responsible and exact revenge. From here on in, and until the very end, the film sheds its bright, painterly look and moves to the close quarters and brooding menace of the frontier town. As Boss hunts out the culprits and Charley befriends a local nurse (Annette Bening) the movie becomes very internalised and focussed and shows its characters caught in the tight framing of rooms and doorways, the ever present threat of death creeping in.
Personally I do not think Open Range is a great Western but it is great Western filmmaking. As a stand alone film its story falters at certain intervals and moments of dialogue seem laughable, despite being spoken by Costner and Duvall et all. As a western experience however the film does contain memorable set pieces (the climax is a powerhouse of editing and sound design) and star performances, notably from the late Michael Jeter as Percy and Michael Gambon as the snivelling land owner Denton Baxter. Any pathos it does capture is wrought from the sense of lost time and regret that accompanies Costner’s Charley Waite – he deserves the family life he finally finds in the closing shots.