Sunday, June 26, 2011

Shootout at High Noon: Open Range

Open Range (2003, Kevin Costner)
After the arid deserts of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and The Proposition, the mountainous mining regions of Pale Rider, the crooked and quaint towns of The Quick and the Dead and The Shootist, we finally get the beautiful plains, where the herders roam as peacefully as they can, going from plain to plain, guiding cattle to wherever they need be. Kevin Costner’s 2003 surprise hit Open Range is the seventh film to be evaluated in our Shootout at High Noon Marathon, but the first in which the protagonists appear to have a real, regular job. The author has no clue what it must truly be like to herd cattle, but the images provided in the opening scenes of Costner’s film, romanticised as they may be, certainly make it out to be a pleasantly quaint way to make a living. Without realizing it, I was in fact eager to witness characters performing actual tasks that may be deemed normal. These people are not gunmen, they are not thieves, they are not sheriffs, there are not escaped criminals. Rather, they are ordinary cattlemen. Of course, they are as ordinary as can be when played by mega stars Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. 

Open Rage opens in a way that I could only have hoped for in a western marathon: with pastoral beauty and tranquility. Boss (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna) are cattlemen traversing one the most stunning countryside regions one will have ever rested their eyes on (not even filmed in the States, though, but Alberta!).  The relationship between each of the individuals as well the chemistry found in the group as a whole is giving some time to be made clear to the viewer. Boss is a lively old fellow, someone who has lived a full life, who takes pride in what he does and the freedom of his country. He can be stern, but he nonetheless acts as a teacher and father for the rest of the group. Button is the youngest, the least experienced and the most childlike. He wishes to bite off more than he can actually chew at times, which may or may not land him into trouble sometimes, thus his the importance of Boss’ tutelage. Mose, a behemoth of a man, is in reality very friendly and enjoys the company of others. Finally, Charley is the quiet man. He enjoys his job and being at Boss’ side, but does not express much emotion. He is the most reserved and serious of the bunch. It takes a short bit before the actual plot which drives the film is set into motion. There is an important figure in a nearby town, Baxter (Michael Gabon) who acts as a ‘barbed wire’ man, that is, a land baron of sorts. When Mose is sent into town for provisions and gets into a scuffle with the locals, the existence of these ‘free rangers’ comes to the attention of Baxter, who subsequently engages in a war of words and eventually a true on battle with Boss and Charley in an attempt to be rid of the land of free rangers. All the while this is happening, Charley’s boxed up emotions and cold exterior start to melt upon meeting the town doctor’s sister, Susan, played by Annette Bening.

It has been written before at this blog that author is a film lover, not a film expert. What camera Costner used to capture the natural beauty of the plains in those early scenes, or the smoky atmosphere in the cafe, or the stunningly golden sunlight which shines on the protagonists and antagonists during the climactic gun fight remains unknown. How much computer generated enhancement, if any, was used in those same scenes, is also a mystery to me. Regardless of what the technology involved was, one must consider the visual allure of the final product. The composition of the shots, the delicate and carefully calculated camera movements, the play of light and shadow, everything in the movie is exquisitely produced. There is a host of moments that could make for perfect photographs one may admire on his or her wall at any time at all. Others are remarkable testaments to the capacities of director Kevin Costner as a visual storyteller. When the camera rests just atop a horse in the middle of a shootout in town, then begins to dip behind and underneath said horse to reveal one of the shooters in the distance ducking on the ground in order to avoid being hit, thus making the audience feel as though we are ducking along with the shooter to see him better in the midst of all the chaos, the viewer instantly knows that something very special is unfolding. The colour palette itself is brilliant, displaying a rich vibrancy that catches the eye on so many occasions. On a purely visual level, Open Range is a work of art from beginning to end. 

It therefore begs to be asked: do the story and character development match up equally if not even better than the visual splendour showered onto the audience? It can be argued that, yes, Costner gives us a story that earns its spurs. Watching Open Range was an ironic experience in that its plot, involving Baxter, an unscrupulous and savage business man, who wishes nothing else but to see the destruction of free rangers, reminded the reviewer of another films featured in this very marathon, Pale Rider. That film was driven by a similar plot, but in terms of character depth and interactions, both films diverge totally. Whereas Pale Rider seemed content to showcase what a terrific hero Clint Eastwood was, it was at the detriment of everyone in the story. Open Range is far more careful in constructing three dimensional people from tom the bottom. Fine, not everyone is given royal treatment, that would have required far too much time, but the important characters are. Kevin Costner’s Charley is a fascinating man who takes particular pride in what he does and likes to keep most of his emotions locked up inside, but clearly he feels something for Susan, and clearly he is a decent bloke deep down. That makes for genuinely interesting scenes. Duvall’s Boss is a remarkable father figure, joyful and fun loving when the situation permits, but ready and willing to fight whenever his way, the supposedly right way, is threatened. Even the chief villain, Baxter, feels fully developed, despite that he does not appear all that much in the film. As an Irishman who has come to America to show his worth and what his hard work can result in, he is unwilling to see his efforts tainted by the ways of some peddling free rangers. In the end, the audience sides with Costner and Duvall, but if one takes a moment, one can sympathize with Baxter.
The antagonisms that arise when these two philosophies crash into opposition are worthy of a story like this. On at least a couple of occasions in the marathon, Bill has referred to ‘changing times’ of sorts in the history of America and the period when the old west becomes the new west. Out of all the films we have watched in the movie, this is the one that best represents that dichotomy. Baxter represents to new way of doing business, where things are more highly regulated. Boss and Charley represent the way things were done up until that point, where Man was free to be what he was and roam where he roamed in order to make a living. Both sides have a claim to make, and both sides have their pros and cons. Naturally, there is no point when the viewer, myself included, feels inclined to support Baxter and his nefarious lawmen, such as Marshal Poole (played with devilish delight by James Russo), but the notion of these two ways of life conflicting with one another was interesting and served as a solid catalyst for everything that transpires in the story. 

The acting is also up to the task in Open Range. For some inexplicable reason, I feared that Duvall would be relegated to a supporting role. Perhaps all the negativity surrounding Costner for the past 15 years or so clouded my judgement. Any fears were laid to rest very quickly, for Duvall is one of, if not the most important and prominent character in the movie. And what a performance to boot! The man is a class act and completely believable as a Boss. Costner himself fairs very well too as a man who struggles with his thoughts and feelings towards Sue. Annette Bening, probably given the least demanding role here (a frequent occurrence for female actors in the western genre, is still quite good. She seems to be a naturally classy and gracious person, and these qualities seep into her performance as the hard working Sue.
The final dash towards the end of the marathon is nearing. The quality has remained fairly consistent throughout. Open Range did not break that streak. In fact, it was one of the better films we have reviewed so far because it was, arguably, the most consistent in how it treats its characters and themes. Kudos to Mr. Costner for giving us this little gem of a movie.

Done here? Find out if Bill knew where to send the cattle in his review  at his Movie Emporium.


thevoid99 said...

Fantastic review. I'm not a fan of Costner's work as a director but I really liked this film. It definitely had the romantic quality that I enjoy in Westerns and I loved the shootouts towards the end. Plus, to have Robert Duvall as the lead made it more enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Great writing my man, well done.