**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A-
starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon
screenplay by Craig Storper, based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine
directed by Kevin Costner
starring James Woods, Nick Nolte, Claire Forlani, Duel Farnes
screenplay by Mark Polish & Michael Polish
directed by Michael Polish
by Walter Chaw A little like Neil Diamond, Kevin Costner is an anachronism whose earnestness has landed him in Squaresville when the tragedy is that with a little tweaking in perspective, his peculiar brand of old-school earnestness might have his contemporaries looking upon him with more admiration than mirth. Costner is also the great American Gary Cooper hero archetype: tall, good-looking, dim-witted, and dull as dishwater--working almost exclusively in the realm of the sort of guileless red-blooded manifest determinism that loves mom, apple pie, horses, dogs, and guns. And why not? Costner has never stricken me, at least with his own projects, as the slightest bit condescending, his gift the reality or illusion that America's favourite simpleton is learning things at the same pace as his screenplays. His films, from Waterworld to Dances with Wolves to The Postman, are lovable for their complete lack of irony and self-reflection.
From Costner's halcyon vantage, and with nary the hint of an arched eyebrow, a white man can save the Indians, a mailman can save the world, and a guy with, er, gills can save the world, too. Compared to the calculated cynicism at the heart of something like Seabiscuit, Costner's latest film as director/star, Open Range, plays like a bit of the old religion--a western that wrestles briefly with Unforgiven introspection before contenting itself with fiddling around with a gun/dog fetish. It's instantly dated, no question, schmaltzy at the least, unintentionally hilarious for a modern audience at best, yet it feels honest, and that sort of heartfelt sincerity makes me feel a little badly for laughing so much.
Taciturn Charlie Waite (Costner) is a man of thankfully few words who nonetheless rambles on at length when prodded about his mysterious past by his employer/friend Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall). Waite, it seems, has John Wayne's The Searchers past of Civil War soldier-turned-mercenary/killer, and when called back into action by the evil prodding of the requisite corrupt tinhorn sheriff (James Russo) and the immigrant fiend holding his leash (Michael Gambon), he reveals an uncommon knowledge of firearms and tactics. The fact that Costner needs to provide backstory in the form of an extended monologue speaks to his limitations as an actor and a narrative storyteller. Open Range is a movie of few words, but when it talks, it talks almost entirely in homilies, clichés, and etherizing exchanges that sap patience: "He's some cowboy ain't he," asks bizarre Spanish lackey Button (Diego Luna); "Ayup," says Charlie, "they broke the mold after him." And so on. It's the type of well-traveled garbage that would collapse in on itself if any of the actors, for a moment, betrayed even a touch of self-awareness. So it's lucky that none of them ever do.
Duvall does his father-figure cowpoke Gus McCrae shtick with a lazy perfection, Costner plays Costner pretty well by now, and the late Michael Jeter, as the kind of eccentric old hand (usually dubbed "Doc," "Cookie," or "Stumpy") that Walter Brennan used to play, presents a perversely accurate simulacrum of a kitschy 1950s character actor.The story deals in an ancillary way with the ending of the age of "free-graze" cattle herding in the United States and, with it, some of the romance of the cowboy lifestyle. Already handled by Howard Hawks in 1948 with his Oedipal coming-of-age-for-man-and-country opera Red River, Open Range is more concerned with finding roots for its nomadic duo, paving the way for a soft conclusion that serves mainly to illustrate how far Costner has retreated from the laudably pessimistic ending of Dances with Wolves.
As far as Costner-involved westerns go, in fact, Open Range shares the greatest similarity with Silverado, from his gunhand character, to the film's interest in romance and the romantic solution, to a man's natural measure of testosterone-fuelled wanderlust--the ultimate populism of the two pieces illustrating nothing so much as Costner's desire for a hit to restore some of his lost credibility as a director. The greatest offense of Open Range isn't Costner's quaintly panoramic directorial gyrations, however, obsessed as he is with monuments and making monuments of his heroes with extreme low-angle shots, but rather the strange mania with dogs that makes the death of one a greater existential conundrum than the death of their pet Faulknerian idiot man-child Mose (Abraham Benrubi). Every establishing shot of the obligatory town-under-siege includes a few feral dogs running happily amuck, and a key character moment, surprisingly important to the narrative, involves the rescue of a puppy from a raging torrent: "Look like anyone we knew, Charlie?" asks Boss, "Ayup. A small version of him." Ayup.
This rage for canine order speaks to a kind of domesticated servility and emotional convenience represented in human form in Open Range in the character of poor, battered Button and in wilting prairie rose Sue (Annette Bening), the doctor's sister, who's waiting for an archetype of the dusty West to pigeon-toe into town with big hands and a clumsy proposal. That they each find themselves both real and imagined hostages at various stages of the film's last hour cements their status as replacements for Charlie's martyred hound--the only character besides Charlie, as it happens, who receives anything like a psychological profile. Open Range is about comfort, after all, rather than rebellion, its eruption of violence during an excellently staged gunfight (as good, in fact, as the one in Wyatt Earp that introduced that film's final three hours or so) presaged by the enjoyment of Cuban cigars and Swiss chocolates, while its denouement is the "happy" ending of these champions of the open range giving it all up to schlep drinks and bunk up with kind-eyed spinsters. And while there's nothing particularly wrong with getting old and settling down, getting old and settling down are not necessarily the best things to say about an artist and a career that are still superficially enjoyable but undeniably in decline.
Surfaces and eras at terminus are also the main concerns of the Polish brothers, Mark and Michael (Michael directs, the pair script, both have acted) third film, Northfork. Beautifully lensed in a peculiar blue-grey pallor, the picture is a freeform, impressionistic contemplation composed of subjective, dreamy images and the sort of oblique dialogue that aspires for, and falls short of, the satirical absurdism of a Eugéne Ionesco. Its exchanges, like Open Range, a steady parade of deadening clichés, Northfork's dialogue is more an attempt to show the frustration of communication than another example of Costner's picturesque brand of endearing naivety. Unfortunately, the idea of the unreliability of discourse, like so many threads taken up and dropped in Northfork, is poorly developed and presented inconsistently besides--particularly when the power of text and the insectile alchemy of typewriters seems so central to its resolution. Failing to offer the disintegration of interactions with a few grave scenes involving a childless couple viewing an ill orphan through a window (and a fedora'd member of an "Evacuation Committee," played by an unusually restrained James Woods, struggling with the exhumation of his late wife), Northfork tries for the surreal and the magically real in presenting elegy for another death of another idealization of the West.
Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) is shepherd to a decimated flock, scattered to the four winds as their home, the titular Northfork, MT, is due to be drowned behind a dam stood sentry by a monolithic hydroelectric generator rising like a tombstone from the flat plain. No accident that a desecrated graveyard serves as analogous image with a manual excavation evoking another Faulkner grotesque: the shambling Bundren clan from As I Lay Dying. The picture inspires prosody, its images aspire so to the visionary and the surreal, but the heart of the piece is surprisingly literal and bland instead of contemplative and existential. The artifacts that Father Harlan places at the bedside of a terminally ill and abandoned orphan (Irwin (Duel Farnes)) find themselves manifest in a quartet of medicine show angels peopling Irwin's mortal dream, while the parallel narrative of a sextet of black-robed officials bullying stragglers from their homes only finds real allegorical poignancy in a scene in an abandoned diner husbanded by a wizened crone.
Northfork's tone is mournful, no question, but its artifice stands in contrast to the candid frankness of Open Range in the films' twin explorations of the myths of the dying of the American West. Both saddled with too-literal scores (Northfork's by Stuart Matthewman, Open Range's the work of Michael Kamen) that riff off Aaron Copeland's odes--particularly "Appalachian Spring"--to America, where Matthewman takes the tactic of veering towards whimsy, Kamen, as is Kamen's wont, takes a more bloated, orchestral approach. The scores serve as succinct summaries of the directions that their respective films take in presenting their versions of the Western, with the one featuring images of a herd of bison grazing behind a grizzled priest before his thinning congregation, and the other featuring a grizzled cowpoke digging a grave in the hot sun for his dog while his murdered hand's corpse lies somewhere off camera. Both mise-en-scène absurd in their way, Northfork plays it for Theater of the Absurd--with meta-dialogue like "Whatchoo talkin' about Willis?" and "Duck, duck...goose!"--while Open Range plays it with a wrenching bathos, the difference as sharp as any between a post-modern Romanticism and a bald romance.
In the end, I confess to feeling a certain fatigue with Northfork as a film trying too hard to match shots, awe with its glancing affectations of Terrence Malick (who also made a film in Montana, I guess) and Wim Wenders (who also made some films with angels in black overcoats), and score points with its elliptical nods to obscure playwrights. It's technically intriguing, but it doesn't seem to have a clear destination save to mystify with its potpourri theology--the most intriguing aspect being the idea that the plains of Montana once ran with open range angels, as abhorred here as the open range cattlemen of Open Range--and to occasionally dazzle with its Spartan compositions. Nolte impresses with his ferocious vulnerability and Woods delivers his most human performance since The Virgin Suicides, but there is a posture of icy remove to the Polish brothers' film that washes everything in the same bleached palette employed in M. David Mullan's faultless cinematography. Neither Northfork nor Open Range--companion pieces, really--a particularly resonant film, give the slightest edge to Open Range for at least having the animal cunning not to temper its bereavement with a patina of cleverness: it has a charming, childlike faith that the best way to deliver a eulogy is still with a manful, loutish sob and not a vaguely patronizing post-modern wink and nudge. Leave the dissection for the post-mortems and the coroners. Originally published: August 15, 2003.
THE DVD - OPEN RANGE
by Bill Chambers Touchstone releases Open Range in a lavish 2-disc set with at least one unparalleled attribute in the audio arena. While the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is impeccable, I'm less fond of the film's muted glaze than the majority seems to be. Comparing the pale, sun-bleached fields on screen to the verdant vistas in production stills implies that debuting cinematographer James Muro still has a thing or two to learn about digital grading, having spent the majority of his training as a Steadicam operator and thus away from the colour-timing end of things. (I'm doing a lot of second-guessing, I realize, but it strikes me that the titular "open range" should look more paradisial--otherwise, what are the characters romanticizing?) Where this DVD strikes gold is in its DTS 5.1 soundmix, which features the loudest, deepest, most piercing gunshot effects I've ever heard (they don't carry quite the same heft in Dolby Digital); an early thunderclap that jolts the viewer like an electric shock is almost no indication of the explosive impact the track will have once firearms are brandished. Turn this up, have a literal blast.
Kevin Costner essentially contributes two commentaries to the DVD: a standard yakker over the feature and narration for featurettes composed mainly of camcorder footage shot throughout production. The former is a winning aw-shucks monologue by an actor and filmmaker who can talk your ear off about picket fences and is reminded of his father by the word "knuckles"--to the point that he plugged it into the script as a shout-out; the latter is revealing of a more pretentious side to Costner's personality, as when he expresses the hope that Robert Duvall will one day glance backwards at Open Range and "think of it as his greatest role." He's certainly charming more often than not, though his frequently-reiterated appendicitis woes are a relatively unnecessary ploy for respect--the dedication of anyone who'd make a film so antithetical to current trends as this one is hardly in doubt.
Disc 2's aforementioned Beyond Open Range making-of segments, playable as an omnibus documentary, are as follows: "Beginning" (3 mins.), an introduction that starts off on a surprisingly sour, if tantalizing note, with Costner referring to an anonymous backer as a "piece of shit" and a "sociopath"; "Production Challenges" (11 mins.), where we hear Costner tell of three horses that emerged from the light of a snow-swept field in Calgary, cementing his decision to shoot there--his own preference for a Montana location not viable with only a $25M budget; "First Day!" (5 mins.), in which Costner receives a good-luck kiss from his Mom before the start of principal photography, and--as related through voice-over--has his appendicitis misdiagnosed as dehydration; "Weathering the Elements" (16 mins.), a piece that kicks off with a nice memory of the late Michael Jeter before communicating the challenges of controlling water, whether it comes from the sky or a rain machine; "Wardrobe and Stars" (5 mins.), an ode of sorts to Annette Bening (simply ravishing in her interview snippets) and Duvall; "The Realism of a Gunfight" (7 mins.), an overview of the climax, which Costner chose to film whilst suffering from laryngitis, and which Muro photographed with a lightweight Super35 camera to allow for maximum freedom of movement; and "A Film is Finished" (9 mins.), something of a gaze into the scoring process, though Costner fails to mention that this session of Michael Kamen conducting a Prague orchestra was also the composer's last--perhaps the DVD's supplements were completed prior to Kamen's death in October of 2003.
Costner also narrates the 13-minute "America's Open Range", a kind of Ken Burns for Dummies special on frontier life wherein letters by such historical figures as Teddy Roosevelt are read aloud by actors who each adopt a voice uncannily like that of J. Peterman on "Seinfeld". Twelve deleted scenes--nine of which come with an optional video prelude from Costner--show how lush Open Range's dailies were while proving once and for all that Costner can in fact be talked into shortening movies, too. Pacing is the culprit for the bulk of these elisions, except in the case of a sequence Costner felt was editorially unsound. (I personally would gladly sacrifice the film's coda for the restoration of Mose's longest passage of dialogue.) Storyboard artist David J. Negron Jr. screens a rudimentary animatic for us and for Costner in "Storyboarding: Open Range" (7 mins.), but it's a music video (more accurately, a montage of Open Range B-roll for posterity's sake) called "Broken Wagon" that rounds out the second platter. Disc 1 includes "sneak peeks" at Hidalgo, Veronica Guerin, Cold Creek Manor, The Haunted Mansion, "Alias", and ESPN DVD product. Originally published: January 29, 2004.