Kevin Costner’s 2003 Western, Open Range, is hardly a ‘hidden gem’ in the conventional sense. It arrived with a sweeping grandness and a roster of great actors, at a time when Costner’s star was still bright and there was nothing he did that could slip under anyone’s radar. But despite its big names and warm reception, Open Range is a movie that seems to have fallen down behind the sofa and been forgotten. Perhaps due to the unfashionableness of the genre, perhaps due to Costner’s inexplicably waning appeal. Whatever the reason, Open Range is an absorbing, thrilling Western that is driven by robust characterisation and gritty action.
Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner), Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna) are four ‘free graze’ cattle drivers, guiding their herd across the eponymous open range of the American west. Passing through a small town, they fall afoul of evil cattle magnate, Baxter (Michael Gambon), who has the law in his pocket and an ill temper toward rival cattlemen. Threatened with gaol unless they take their herd away from the local land, Spearman and Charlie must decide whether to be on their way or stand up to Baxter and his corrupt lawmen.
Shot in Alberta, Canada, we witness incredible scenery as Spearman and his company drive their herd across rolling green hills from horizon to horizon. Open Range is, to date, the last film directed by Kevin Costner, somewhat overlooked amongst his more famous (Dances With Wolves) and infamous (The Postman) back catalogue.
Robert Duvall is superb as Boss Spearman, a no-nonsense old geezer, out on the plain doing what he does best. Costner’s Charlie Waite is stoic and ever vigilant, harbouring a guarded, dark past. Costner doesn’t menace, instead he brings a practiced efficiency to Charlie’s actions. Coolly planning a gunfight like he might plan a spot of DIY. Yet, it’s the friendship between Spearman and Charlie that brings us most of Open Range‘s finest moments outside of the gunplay.
And as the bad guy, Michael Gambon is a top-drawer bastard, keeping the town of Harmonville under the heel of Baxter’s boot as he spits and snarls at the cowpokes. They are all ably abetted by an excellent roster of character actors, populated by the likes of Annette Benning and Michael Jeter.
Open Range is arguably the best Western of the ’00s, and the best since Clint Eastwood’s gritty rumination on an ex-gunfighter’s redemption, Unforgiven. There are some comparisons to be had to Unforgiven, despite both movies being distinct and gripping in their own right. Both films feature small towns ruled by despots and immoral, compromised lawmen. Both movies feature reformed gunmen, seeking redemption and civility, inexorably drawn back into their old ways by situations they cannot control. For the genre, it would take another seven years for a Western of equal measure to come along, in the form of the Coen brothers’ True Grit, adapted faithfully from Charles Portis’ magnificent novel.
At heart, Open Range is a classic western revenge picture, but manages to pose interesting questions of vengeance verses justice. Violence becomes incumbent upon Spearman and Charlie to act upon, stacked against killing for its own sake. Spearman claims they are after “Justice, not vengeance”. But is that really true?
The movie thrives on its quick, bloody and down-in-the-mud violence, and is propelled by great dialogue and attention to character, bringing believability to a story that might have seemed simple on the page. Costner skilfully herds his movie, never once making it feel long-winded or overblown, spinning a yarn that somehow manages to be both reliant upon, and able to breathe new life into Western genre staples. Open Range stands up with the best of them, delivering a hearty dose of frontier reality, it’s more than worthy of a revisit.