Directed by Kevin Costner
Written by Craig Storper; based on the novel by Lauran Paine
Cast: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Abraham Benrubi, Diego Luna, James Russo, Michael Gambon, Annette Benning, and Kim Coates
Length: 2 hours and 19 minutes
Genre: Action, drama, romance, western
MPAA Rating: R
Description from IMDB:
“A former gunslinger is forced to take up arms again when he and his cattle crew are threatened by a corrupt lawman.”
In the late 1800’s, free grazing (moving a herd of cattle around the prairie and allowing them to graze wherever they stop) wasn’t quite illegal, but local towns with ranches didn’t take kindly to those who came along and ate their supply of grass; a team of free grazers, led and employed by Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), come near one such town. Boss, his second Charlie (Kevin Costner), and hired hands Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna), are drawn into conflict with the corrupt sheriff (James Russo) of the town when Mose is viciously beaten and they are threatened. When Mose is killed and Button wounded, Charlie and Boss take it upon themselves to exact retribution from the corrupt lawman and his employer (Michael Gambon). Blood is shed, and Charlie’s violent past comes to light as he seeks to reconcile himself with the fact he is a killer while kindling his desire to settle down with the doctor’s sister, Sue (Annette Benning).
The team of free grazers is made up of a crew of varying personalities. They are led by Boss, a cantankerous, veteran cowboy who cares deeply for those under his employ, though he is reluctant to show it to them directly. He has worked with Charlie for ten years, though they know little about each other’s backgrounds. Charlie, like Boss, has a code of honor and respect for hard work. This is shared with Mose, the large, earnest, and loyal member of their crew. Button is a sixteen year old who looks up to Boss and Charlie, though he is a little too eager to volunteer for dangerous tasks and often finds himself at odds with the more experienced men on the team.
Charlie, as the protagonist of the film, is different from the classical western hero of the genre. Where most were typically “white hats”, or lawmen, Charlie once was a hired killer; he was most likely much like Butler (Kim Coates), an infamous gunslinger that he and Boss face near the end of the film. Charlie lives with this past, and it is revealed only when he must bring his skills to the forefront in order to save Button’s life. He gives no thought to the danger to him; though this begins initially as a sort of acknowledgement of his dark past, it isn’t until he meets Sue and she tells him she isn’t afraid of what he is capable of that he realizes he can be reconciled. He has done bad things, but that doesn’t mean he needs to continue to. Boss is there to reign him in, and he learns that he can be loved from Sue.
One key component to the American western is the climactic gunfight near the end of the film. Open Range (2003) does not vary from this formula, but it does have its own twists. Open Range (2003) is what is called a revisionist western; genres go through different stages and eventually become revisionist, which showcases them taking their tropes and motifs in new avenues that reinvigorate the genre. The gunfight in Open Range (2003) subverts the classics before a single shot is fired; throughout the movie, we hear about Butler, a gunslinger whose arm was broken by Mose and who eventually killed him. In most other westerns, Butler would take a key role in the final firefight; in Open Range (2003), Charlie puts him down with a single shot to the head immediately after confirming the gunslinger’s identity. This change in form goes on when Charlie allows his bloody past to work through him as he takes down the hired men.
Open Range (2003) is a fantastic western because of what it does that makes it stand apart from others in the genre. Sure, the classic plot points are there: cowboys come to civilization in the form of a town and their violent nature has no place in civilization so they must either leave or become domesticated, typically by a female presence. These story beats are present, but the execution of the characters and their motivations brings them a little closer to realism than the typical, mythic western. Costner did a great job directing this, and though some of the exposition is clunky, the overall experience of the film works to create a pleasurable viewing experience.
Verdict: 4 divisions between revenge and justice out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of beautiful pastures, fans of westerns, those who enjoy fade-in and fade-out transitions, fans of Robert Duvall’s tongue sticking out when he laughs, people who like revisionist westerns, fans of the color brown, and those who like goofy names.
Not recommended for: Those who despise beautiful pastures, people who dislike Robert Duvall’s tongue sticking out when he laughs, Baxter, Butler, people who get Annette Benning mixed up with Diane Keaton, or those looking for an action-packed movie.