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Open Range (2003)

by on 2013/06/29

Open Range (2003)

“Liked it.”

* * * *

A relatively recent western, far less known than Dances with Wolves, but also starring and directed by Kevin Costner, Open Range offers less depth but doesn’t lack for either production values or simple pleasures.

Also featuring Robert Duvall, it includes other relatively large names in stock parts: Annette Bening (Mars Attacks) as the love interest, and Michael Gambon (Harry Potter series) as a rancher baron channeling a Gene Hackman. Which is to say, he’s a stentorian, teeth-gnashing scene-chewer.

Aficionados of Canadiana will be pleased to discover some familiar faces in the Albertan-as-American setting: Kim Coates and Julian Richings as antagonist goons-at-large.

The plot resembles nothing so much as a modified Magnificent Seven, with the “magnificent” numbering just two, and the town never initially asking for help. Instead, a small group of free grazers (led by Costner and Duvall) happen upon a small town. Gambon’s character, holding devastating sway, drives them off, inciting their wrath. The lead-up and climactic fight form the remainder of the movie.

The plot is simple, the pace is slow, but deliberately so, and never boring. Ample investment is made in smaller roles (like Button, Mose, and Tig the dog) and minor details (like the savouring of cigars, chocolate, coffee, and sugar), which fleshes out the interest considerably.

It helps even more that Costner allows everyone their space and time, never racing through lines to get to the next plot point. In general this approach works well but nearly threatens the impact of the leads. Costner himself always seems simultaneously distracted and intense, as if vaguely irritated by something out of frame.

Robert Duvall even more so, less surly than theatrical. He struck me more as a modern re-enactor, puffed up with amusement at winning his role, and so relishing the gusto he employs he becomes more entertaining than convincing. It’s not that he isn’t enjoyable, but I never believe he’s a product of his time or circumstances.

Visually, it’s all fairly strong, though with occasional puzzling lapses. For every picturesque silhouette of a grave-digging scene, every interesting angle, and every striking halo, there are continuity mismatches, sudden silences over visibly-mouthed (and subtitled) dialogue, and artificial lighting in the out-of-doors.

There are also moments which must be intended, but don’t have the presumed effect. Shadows obscure faces during discussions. Action slows down unreally with changing shutter speeds. Grainy textures appear suddenly in the climax. While none of these detract overall, they do distract in their moments.

Still, mine is comparative quibbling in a standard-yet-strong adventure. It does very little that’s new, borrowing aspects from proven tales like High Noon, but executes them respectably. In the pantheon of Kevin Costner’s works, it still ranks above The Postman and Wyatt Earp, at least in results, if not in ambition or scope.

More a careful experience than adrenalizing action, it’s insubstantial but charming, endearing, poignant, and even touching in its way. I doubt many people see such films for their series of little “moments” but Open Range’s add up to a worthwhile whole.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

139 minutes

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