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Open Range (August 14/03)

It's interesting to note that the best movie to be released this summer, as of right now, is one directed by Kevin Costner. He's taken a lot of flak for helming The Postman, the Gigli of 1997, which was admittedly mawkish and overlong (but generally entertaining). With Open Range, Costner definitively proves himself an able director - as this is one of the best films of the year.

Set in the late 18th century, Open Range follows four cowboys - Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Costner), Button (Diego Luna), and Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) - as they make their way across the American landscape accompanied by their cattle. Their peaceful lifestyle is interrupted when they stop near a small frontier town called Harmonville, ruled over by the villainous Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). Baxter objects to their "freegrazing" - a term referring to folks that live off the land - and almost immediately has his men attack the four cowboys.

Costner's clearly in no hurry to tell this story - the film's deliberate pace will probably turn off less attentive viewers - but the movie never feels slow, primarily due to a genuinely interesting storyline and some better-than-expected acting. The first half hour or so of the film is devoted almost exclusively to the four cowboys, and as we watch them perform the mundane tasks of their day-to-day lives, these characters become figures that we really care about. That Boss and Charley, both of whom come from the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick school of though, eventually turn into such authentic-seeming cowboys is certainly due in no small part to the performances of Duvall and Costner. Costner, in particular, does a nice job of shedding his clean-cut image playing this man that's spent the better part of his life killing. But through Charley's burgeoning relationship with a local named Sue (Annette Bening), we start to see that he's got more in mind than simply drifting from town to town.

Though Duvall's character initially comes off as yet another variation on his patented "grizzled mentor" persona, it soon becomes evident that there's a lot more to Boss than meets the eye. There's certainly a father-son quality to Boss' relationship with Charley, but it's his devotion to his crew and to his transient lifestyle that makes Boss such a compelling figure. He's a character that Duvall seems to have no trouble inhabiting, and it's a performance that should guarantee the actor a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar season. But unlike, say, Jack Palance for City Slickers, Duvall will actually deserve the nod; check out his fantastic speech to an evil Marshall for proof. Few actors have the intensity to command the screen the way Duvall does, and his abilities are on full display here.

And of course, this being a Western, Costner fills virtually each frame with a stunning view of the open landscape. Along with cinematographer James Muro, Costner effectively ensures that (at the very least) Open Range is always intriguing just to look at.

Interestingly enough, it's the quieter moments in the film that are the most interesting. Though the shoot-out that appears at the end is enjoyable enough, it's the sequences featuring Boss and Charley just talking to each other that form the heart and soul of Open Range. Those who may be tempted to skip the film because of The Postman would do well to reconsider, as this is one of the most purely entertaining movies to come around in a while.

out of

© David Nusair