Open Range: Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner created a lush love letter to the traditional Western genre

Open Range(2003), starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Benning, and directed by Kevin Costner, is the last of the great traditional Westerns. Apart from delivering all the ingredients that one expects from a Western, the film also features one of the greatest climactic gunfights in Western film history.

I don’t think i have ever scene a flooded town street in a Western before, that’s until i saw one in Kevin Costner’s film, Open Range. I have seen muddy streets, water-logged streets, but never seen a street where the two sides are separated by a river of water flowing in between, which makes it impossible for people to cross the street without getting washed away. This is just one of the things that Costner does well with this film. Open Range is as traditional as it gets when it comes to Westerns, but the greatness of the film is that it does everything that’s expected of an old-fashioned Western, and it does it really well, as well as, showing some new stuff along the way, like that flooded street; stuff like that was always there in Westerns of yore, but wasn’t been fully explored as here. Also, after a deluge of ‘revisionist’ Westerns, starting from 1960s onwards, it’s a great pleasure to luxuriate in a traditional Western like this one. For Kevin Costner, who co-produced, co-starred and directed this film, this is is his third film as an Actor\director. His two earlier efforts, Dances with Wolves(1990) and The Postman(1997) had wildly differing destinies. The were both Westerns- the former a traditional horse opera that took a benign view of the Native Americans, while the latter was a futuristic Western set in post-apocalyptic, disestablished United States in then near-future year of 2013. The former was a resounding critical and commercial success that netted Oscars for Costner for production and direction. the latter was a critically eviscerated box office dud that’s considered one of the biggest flops and one of the silliest movies ever made. But both films possessed some of Costner’s best and worst tendencies as actor and director, though in varying degrees, which explains the varying responses they got. Costner was a red hot superstar in the early 1990s; a string of successes starting with The Untouchables(1987), and the Oscar winning “Wolves” had made him one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. But he faced back to back setbacks in the mid 90s, with Wyatt Earp(19994), Waterworld(1995) and The Postman(1997) turning out to be huge flops. His rampant egotism and self indulgence in making overly-expensive, bloated, self-important epics, with himself at the center giving bland and ineffective performances, was severely criticized in these films. Though he did make some good films towards the end of the 90s, like the delightful sports romantic-comedy, Tin Cup(1996)– my favorite Costner performance, Message in a Bottle(1998) and the terrific political thriller, Thirteen Days(2000), he could never return to his glory days of the early ’90s.

So, when he embarked on Open Range in 2002, he was really at a very low ebb in his career. To get this old-fashioned Western made, he had to finance half of the film’s modest $22 million dollar budget himself. The result is perhaps the best film Costner had made in his career. He corrected a lot of mistakes he had made with his earlier ventures: First foremost, he took a co-starring part, and for the starring role he got the great Robert Duvall. With Duvall holding the center stage and doing most of the dramatic heavy lifting, Costner only needed to play-off against him; just be the strong and silent straight arrow, who’s emphasis is on being the more agile and action-oriented of the two. Also, whatever faults Costner has a filmmaker, his adoration, appreciation and taste for the ‘Western’ genre is unparalleled and palpable. He really has a feel for the atmosphere and archetypes of the genre, and this time, instead of telling a sweeping saga with an abundance of characters and locations, he narrates a small incident involving a few people set in one location that takes place over a week or so; and thereby manages to gain greater control over developing the material. For greater authenticity, he has actors like Duvall who comes across as ‘lived in’ in this ‘cowboy’ milieu, and for whom this is the best character since his legendary Western TV series, Lonesome Dove. Duvall started out by playing baddies opposite Western icons like John Wayne in True Grit(1969) and Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd(1972), before gradating to become the quintessential New-Hollywood actor with M.A.S.H, Network and The Godfather films. Duvall holds this film together under all circumstances, with his iconic presence and a deeply moving performance that traverses emotions ranging from gentle kindness to abrupt bursts of violence driven by vengeance.

Set in Montana in the year 1882, Open Range tells the story of cowboys, Bluebonnet ‘Boss’ Spearman(Duvall) and Charley Waite(Costner). who drives their cattle from one free range to another. They’ve been together for almost ten years now, and are now accompanied by two young hired hands, Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button(Diego Luna). Charlie was a soldier in civil war, and later, a murdering gunslinger- a past life he is ashamed of and trying hard to put behind him – and now he is been going straight under the guidance of Boss, whom he love and respect a lot. Costner shows great confidence and courage as a filmmaker in setting up the opening scenes of the film, which details the bland, mundane lives of the cowboys- as they drive the cattle, banter, fight, play cards, cook food, take refuge from the rain etc. etc. Theirs is a slow, eventless life, and Costner brings the audience down to their life rhythms. His camera captures the breathtaking landscape in all its pristine glory, with nature itself becoming a major character in the film. From these early scenes of character interactions, we get an idea of the relationship dynamics at work. Boss is a kind, generous master, but someone who’s tired and weary after a long life in the saddle. Charley may have given up his murdering ways, but there’s still violence brimming underneath and he’s not someone who forgives quickly, as we see from his anger at Button for cheating at cards. Button is the young upstart who tries hard to make an impression on his elders, while Mose, a big bear of a man, is all heart and not much thought.

The turning point in their lives happens when Boss sends Mose to the nearby town of Harmonville to pick up some supplies. Boss and Charley become concerned when Mose does not return, and decides to go looking for him. They put Button in charge of the cattle and the wagon, and they set forth for the town. In town, they run into a quirky livery stable owner, Percy(Michael Jeter), who informs them that Mose had gotten into a fight in town and he was badly beaten up and jailed by Marshal Poole(James Russo). Boss and Charley goes to the Marshal’s office to free Mose, and there they are accosted by ruthless Irish immigrant land baron, Denton Baxter(Michael Gambon), who hates open-rangers. Baxter is the one effectively running the town and Poole is merely his stooge. Baxter warns the two cowboys to get out of his land, otherwise they will be killed and their cattle scattered. Boss and Charley retrieve Mose from the prison, but Mose’s injuries are so severe that they have to take him to Doc Barlow. There they meet Sue Barlow(Annette Benning). Charley is attracted immediately, but assumes that Sue is the doctor’s wife.

When Boss, Charley and Mose returns to their camp, they find riders wearing spooky masks scouting their cattle. Realizing that they’re Baxter’s men out to scare them, Boss and Charley decide to surprise them by ambushing them in the night. Leaving Mose and Button behind, they sneak up on the riders in the night, disarms them and beats them up. But they are shocked to learn that there’s another hunting party of Baxter’s men who are now on their way to ambush their camp. Boss and Charley quickly rides back to their camp, but, by then, tragedy had struck: Mose is dead, shot in the head, and Button, also shot in the head, is barely alive. Their dog, Tig, was also shot dead by Baxter’s killers. This wanton act of violence triggers something dormant in Boss. The kindhearted man is now thirsting for revenge, but more than that, he wants justice done for what has happened. He furiously blurts out: ” I aim to kill Baxter and those that done this, and if that marshal gets in the way, I’m gonna kill him too. So you best get your mind right about what’s got to be done, Charley“. Charley, as usual, goes along with whatever Boss says; his retort is, “I got no problem with killing, Boss. Never have“. After saying a prayer over Mose’s grave, they set out for the town to take revenge. But first, Button needs tending; so they leave him with Sue.

Once they reach the town it starts raining, and its here that we see the kind of damage that nature is capable of wrecking on these old Western towns. Much of the great towns and cities that sprung in the west were built on environmentally unfriendly places, and it’s a miracle that a lot of them prospered, battling these natural elements. Boss and Charley has to lay wooden planks to create a sort of temporary bridge to cross the street that’s overflowing with water. Boss makes it across comfortably, but before Charley could cross, the planks are drowned, leaving him stranded. He somehow manages to make it across with Boss’ help; even managing to save a dog in the process. The grateful owner of the dog offers to buy them coffee, and they move into nearby saloon. There they are confronted by Marshal Poole, who serves them warrant for beating up Baxter’s men. Boss retaliates by giving a little speech about the injustices that they had to endure from Baxter, and swearing to ensure that justice is done:

“We got a warrant sworn for attempted murder for them that tried to kill the boy who’s laying over there at the Doc’s, trying to stay alive. Swore out another one for them that murdered the big fella you had in your cell. Only ours ain’t writ by no tin star, bought and paid for, Marshal. It’s writ by us, and we aim to enforce it. Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either.”

Boss is quite taken aback by his own eloquence, and later, rather sheepishly asks Charley whether he liked the speech. Charley replies he did. Boss and Charley concoct a plan to get to Baxter before he gets them: Boss and Charley barges into Marshal’s office; they knocks him out with chloroform that Boss had stolen from the doctor’s office. Then they lock him up along with his deputies. Then they wait the night out in Sue’s apartment for Baxter and his men to arrive. In the night, Charley has some nightmares, and he accidentally destroys Sue’s tea set; also, scares the hell out of her. The next morning, Charley and Boss wake up to find most of the townsfolk leaving; Word has reached them that Baxter and his men are on their way, and they don’t want to get caught up in the gunfight that’s going to take place. In the interim, Charley has come to realize that Sue is Doc’s sister, and he declares his love for her. In turn, she gives him a locket for luck. Charley leaves a note with Percy, in which he states that if he should die, money from the sale of his saddle and gear are to be used to buy Sue a new tea set. Then, Boss and Charley go out to the end of the Town and wait for Baxter’s men, with Percy watching guard from his stable.

The gunfight that follows is one of the greatest i have ever seen in a Western. Both the buildup and the actual execution of it is quite different from what we have seen. Till this point in the story, Boss was taking the lead and Charley was going along, but this is now Charley’s show. He gives the directions in the form of a running commentary as to the events that’s going to unfold. He feels that only two or three among Baxter’s men would be professionals, rest would just be cowpunchers and laborers. So they take them out first, and the rest could be easily overcome. Baxter’s main gunslinger is a guy named Butler; he’s the guy who supposedly killed Mose. Charley has heard his name before, and thinks that he could identify him when he sees him. Boss is impressed by Charley’s strategy, and feels assured that he’s got everything worked out, but not Charley, who appears nervous for the first time in the film. Finally, Baxter and his men arrive and now they are face to face with Boss and Charley. Charley zeroes in on a guy whom he thinks is Butler. He walks straight towards him and asks:

Charley: You the one killed our friend?

Butler: That’s right. I shot the boy, too. And I enjoyed it.

In a shocking turn of events, Charley pulls out his gun and shoots Butler between his eyes. Once Butler is down, Baxter and his men are thrown into disarray, with Boss and Charley indiscriminately shooting down Baxter’s men, who are running for cover.  The sound effects of the gunshots are terrific, and so is the choreography. Costner eschews slow motion for the most part, depending on wide angle long shots to stimulate the effect of real time. The gunfight that constitutes an entire act has a beginning, middle and an end on its own. The first part finds Boss, Charley and Percy waging an intense battle with Baxter and men in the streets. The middle section finds Sue and Button, who’s heavily bandaged and still not fully recovered, joining in the fight, with Baxter getting Marshal Poole and his deputies out of the prison to help him. The section also finds Charley going back to his immoral ways, trying to kill an unarmed, wounded man, and Boss somehow talking him out of it. The final section is shot entirely in slow motion, with Boss leading a charge against Baxter, who’s hiding in the jailhouse and a wounded Charley covering him, as well, as gunning down Poole and his deputies. The townspeople also join the fight, chasing and shooting down Baxter’s men. Boss shoots open the jailhouse door and engages Baxter in a brief close-quarters gunfight which leaves Baxter mortally wounded. But Boss refuse to put the final bullet to ease his pain, and leaves him to bleed to death. Sue tends to Button and Charley’s wounds. Once healed, Charlie decides to leave, and Sue promises him that she’ll wait for him. In the film’s epilogue, we find Charley returning to Sue and proposing marriage. Charley and Boss decide to give up the cattle business and settle down in town as Saloonkeepers.

The brilliantly staged climactic gunfight is more than proof of Costner’s keen understanding of the Western genre. A Western that does not end in a gunfight is no Western, and Costner knows that if he fails to deliver a good one at the end, his Western will not work. Hence, he seems to have put extra efforts into creating an outstanding one. The moment where he shoots Butler is an absolute cracker and unprecedented in a Western showdown. Usually, the biggest gunslinger lasts till the end, here he is taken out first. Costner also handles the central Charley-Sue romance with sensitivity. Both Charley and Sue are characters past their youth, and pretty much resigned to having independent and lonely existences. So when a man\woman appears out of nowhere in their lives, they don’t know how to handle it at first. But slowly the attraction grows, even when it’s obvious that an unrefined killer like Charley may not be a good match for the cultured sophisticated, Sue. But still they persist, and she manages to bring out the sensitive side in him. Annette Benning is so identified with the feisty, bitchy characters she played in The Grifters and American Beauty that it’s a kind of shock to see her as a subdued, romantic, frontier lady in this film. Her performance is terrific, and she and Duvall build a strong bridge for Costner’s more terse and recalcitrant performance to connect with the audiences. This was the main issue i had with Costner’s performances in Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, The Postman etc. They come across as self-absorbed and bland. But when he has great actors playing off against him: as in The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham, Tin Cup etc., he’s great. As for Duvall’s ‘Boss’, it’s impossible to imagine anybody else in this role; maybe Gene Hackman or Sam Elliot, but they are much too strong personalities, and they would have to put in extra efforts to play the kind, vulnerable side of Boss, which comes as second nature to Duvall. Take the scene where he reminisces about his wife and child whom he lost to Typhus, or the one where he shares a piece of Swiss chocolate with the shopkeeper, who cant afford it himself, or even the final scene when he confronts Baxter after he had mortally wounded him. Baxter cant believe he’s dying, and he say that out loud, only for Boss to retort: “And for what? More cows? You killed a good man.” Duvall’s line delivery is both tough and poignant.

The film’s screenplay by Craig Storper was based on a novel by Lauran Paine, who was one of Costner’s favorite Western fiction writers. Indeed, the writing of the film is also very good; the dialogues are superb, brimming with ‘Western’ poetry. The characters are at once Western archetypes: The gunslinger trying to go straight, the wise, all-knowing, old mentor, The young cocky kid, the tough frontier woman, the purely evil land baron, the corrupt lawman etc.; but they also manage to transcend the archetypes to an extend and become real. The photography by J. Michael Muro, who was a camera operator on Dances with Wolves, is crisp, clean and straightforward, putting the breathtaking Canadian locations to maximum effect. It’s a lush film, both visually and aurally, with Michael Kamen providing a great score; the scoring for the final section of the climactic gunfight is particularly impressive. Costner’s direction is assured and stately. He does not rush things, and is successful in capturing the idyllic life rhythms of 1880s Montana. His respect and adoration for the genre is very evident throughout, and his influences are all classical Westerns of masters like John Ford. The first act of the film is heavily influenced from Ford’s My Darling Clementine: Cattle-grazers going into town , and returning to find their cattle stolen and one of their kin murdered. The gawky, tentative romance between Sue and Charley is also similar to the one between Wyatt and Clementine. Costner also borrows from William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow incident, Howard Hawks’ Red River and Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral. But the finished film is still his, and very much a film that stands on its own. The film was a welcome box office hit for Costner, when it was released in August, 2004. The film made around $60 million, thus proving his convictions right. He also proved that he can make good pictures without a big budget, and that there is still a market for well made Westerns. The film’s worth can be well understood by the several failed attempts to recreate the Western as a modern blockbuster by contemporary directors like Jon Faverau and Gore Verbinski in films like Cowboys and Aliens and The Lone Ranger. They just didn’t have the taste for the genre as Costner did. Open Range remains the last great movie Western for me.

One thought on “Open Range: Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner created a lush love letter to the traditional Western genre

  1. I particularly liked the ending where Charlie tells Sue to head back to town and she resists him. At that point he asks her how this marriage is going to work if she doesn’t do what he says. And she just gives him this smile that says so much.

    Liked by 1 person

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