The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Romanticizing the reinvention of American life and land is essential to the enduring power of the Western. The idea that toughness and tenacity alone could transform topography into something simpler. That the land’s sheer expanse expressed the promise of abandoning a likely lonesome, pitiful existence you eked out elsewhere and forging something new.
Of course, the genre has regularly challenged more rosy readings of those concepts for well over a half-century. There were inklings of these ideas as irritants after World War II, but the larger shift commenced in conjunction with the continual boondoggle of America’s presence in the Vietnam War. What better genre than the Western through which to confront the root of rot represented by international attempts at manifest destiny? Sure, there have been a few “fun” Westerns since, but that more pragmatic, fatalist reflection now largely fuels the genre.
Open Range is arguably the last big-studio Western to achieve significant financial success without revisiting the classics (3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, The Lone Ranger) or playfully revising the historical record (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight). It’s also a keen blend of celebration and cautionary tale, blending outstanding action with palpable apprehension about the point of it all.
Like most cowpokes at the center of such tales, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) carry on with conviction in their code. Central to it is passing along to following generations the open-air freedom to drive cattle where they please. But circa 1882 in Montana, the contradictions and complications are starting to creep in. Button (Diego Luna) is a good kid who has taken up with Spearman and Charley. But where’s the ideological distinction between their conscription of a young man and what the U.S. Army did to Charley, condemning him to forever recall his raging violence against other Americans? How much freedom of choice informs a decision largely predicated on life or death? And isn’t that what they’re moving Button toward anyway, given the certain violence to come in Spearman and Charley’s confrontation with rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who views free-grazing as a pox on his ranching business and the hamlet of Harmonville he has erected for his own interests? “Times change, Mr. Spearman,” Baxter says with an Irish lilt of intimidation. “Most people change with ’em.”
Their battle is against time, opportunity and, eventually, Baxter’s well-armed goons. The inevitability of this gunfight — a muddy, bloody and chaotic all-timer in the final reel — embodies the impermanence inscribed on the American contract. How could it be otherwise in a nation that regularly exploits and expends people it doesn’t know how to address with any empathy? Boss and Charley’s laments about a more honorable nature lost also itch at their inherent understanding: There is a reckoning on the horizon as certain as the stinging, prolonged rain that sometimes stops their cattle drives cold for days. Justified or not, and whether through unassailable purpose or random chance, someone in this society will have a bullet for them.
Also directed by Costner, Open Range is a plaintive and patient saga of big characters in a big country with quaint vistas and warming sunshine. It leaves room both for the purple mountain majesty and the waves of gray. It lets you feel the rippling in still water on puddles that spot the prairie, analogous to the disruption of the natural order of things. For many audiences at the tail-end of a 2003 summer that featured Caribbean pirates, returning Terminators and mankind fighting back against the Matrix, such a concept probably felt like the squarest-thing possible — Grandpa’s decades-old dusty stack of paperbacks in movie form.
Indeed, Craig Storper’s script was based on The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine, who wrote over 1,000 books in his lifetime and worked as a cowboy, competing in rodeos and serving as a movie stuntman in Westerns. (On a side note, Paine had to be among America’s most prolific authors. By 1948, he was writing full-time in fictional genres of romance, science-fiction, mystery and Westerns, as well as penning nonfiction works on America’s Old West, military history, witchcraft and more; he even adopted dozens of pseudonyms to circumvent publishers’ limitations on the number of books they’d issue under a single name.)
Open Range also jangled its spurs on the heels of high-profile Western flops like All the Pretty Horses, American Outlaws and Texas Rangers — which respectively attempted to insert Matt Damon, Colin Farrell and James Van Der Beek into iconic stories or legends and failed. Later that same year, Ron Howard would release the costly $60 million misfire The Missing, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. Westerns have rarely been box-office barn-burners, but the comparative contemporary halcyon days of Unforgiven, Tombstone and Costner’s own Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves were already a decade (or longer) ago.
And yet no straight-ahead Western with characters not yet met has fared as well financially in the 20 years since, as Open Range brought in nearly $70 million worldwide off a $22 million budget ($1 million of that spent on building the town of Harmonville from scratch). By the end of its theatrical run, Open Range was the ninth highest-grossing Western ever, and that’s with a charitable definition of the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson buddy-action comedies Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights as Westerns. Despite what the Academy Awards thought and considering the small number of this subset, Open Range also makes its case as Costner’s best directorial effort. Setting aside the sobering epilogue text of Dances with Wolves, it’s a more forthright look at America’s perpetually destructive intersection of culture and real estate.
At the same time, Costner never met a two-hour tale he couldn’t directorially indulge (officially or otherwise) past that point. Thus, 125 great minutes are trapped inside a total of about 135. The fault is solely with Costner’s indecision as a filmmaker. It’s not with Costner as a performer or Annette Bening, Costner’s most prominent co-star for the scenes in question. She plays Sue Barlow, the sister to a Harmonville town doctor who’s about to become very busy and the town’s primary spinster … at least until Charley takes a fumbling emotional interest she reciprocates.
Charley can’t possibly be the first man to make such overtures to Sue. He’s just the only one with an atypical awareness and acknowledgment of his limitations where buffoonery and bravado have gone before. Charley is a somber man, and his demons are often distressing, but he has what wasn’t yet referred to as emotional intelligence. “They may be little things,” Sue tells Charley, “but they’re enough for a woman who looks.” Unable to match her in elegant prose, Charley chooses plain talk about the problems to come: “Men are gonna get killed here today and I’m gonna kill ’em, Sue. You understand that?” Costner and Bening lay bare an honesty between Charley and Sue, elevating their romance beyond the perfunctory, along with Storper’s refusal to simplify her as a mere damsel in distress.
It’s too bad that Open Range boasts a couple of codas concerning the emotional consummation of this courtship when one would do just fine. It’s almost as if Costner shot a few versions of how Charley and Sue square up their sentiment and liked both of them too much to choose one. That the scenes arrive stacked atop each other emphasizes the awkward editorial rhythm in a film that is otherwise expertly assembled.
The film is more confident about complicating the connection between Spearman and Charley as friends and partners. Tacit between them is the knowledge that they had entire existences before they met each other. Spearman’s strictures on snap-judgment violence have tamed something in Charley, of which Spearman senses snippets but not specifics. Meanwhile, Charley has served as an ersatz heir for Spearman’s herd — not with anything approaching the intimacy of a proxy son but simply a trustworthy name to ink on a contract when the time comes.
But why would two guys who have taken up a tao of transience always talk about that? Storper, Duvall and Costner understand that the conversational crossroads at which Spearman and Charley arrive in Open Range could only happen after nearly a decade together and at what would appear to be the end of their road. Had it happened earlier, they might no longer ride together when they most need each other to survive what’s coming.
Thus, Charley confesses the details of his violent past to Spearman, a priest of the prairie life even if he long ago renounced the benevolence of a Christian god. Charley also fears feeling closer to fellows like Baxter than he wants to admit. Spearman listens and lets this information settle overnight. He needs time to sit with it, for every little choice he makes will have big implications. And so Spearman decides, on the precipice of the showdown with Baxter and his goons, to express the value of happiness and human comfort and let Charley see it — a sort of last-rites splurge on chocolate and cigars that is among the many touches that lend Open Range greatness beyond its gunplay. “It’s a pretty day for makin’ things right” is a fantastically gritty Western canard and exactly the insight Spearman wants to impart on Charley before any guns are drawn.
Duvall was the only actor Costner had in mind to play Spearman, so Open Range might not have happened had he said no. Against Touchstone Pictures’ preference, Duvall also received top billing. The legendary actor was also 71 when filming began, 14 years removed from his turn as grizzled Gus McCrae in the miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and he broke six ribs when bucked from a horse while practicing riding for the role. In other words: Duvall is a mountain unto himself whom Costner films and frames as such in worthwhile homage. (Three years later, Duvall returned to the Western genre with the miniseries Broken Trail for director Walter Hill and won an Emmy for his work.)
There is a naturally comic kick to watching Duvall slap down disrespectful lackeys with his gun butt and his gabbing; at one point, he tells a gaggle of masked men to put their peckers in the dirt and after popping one in the head tells him to “listen out of your good ear now.” Early scenes showcase some amusing shit-talk about Spearman being old enough to see Noah’s flood during a torrential rain. But Duvall weds his wiliness and weariness in ways that make Spearman one of the actor’s finest roles in a career full of classics. “You reckon them cows are worth gettin’ killed over?” Charley asks Spearman. “It’s not that,” he retorts. “It’s one man telling another where they can move in this country. Sticks in my craw.” The moment pulls triple duty: It conveys Duvall’s effortless cool and calm in this genre; it’s a bark complemented by a pull off some tobacco this land provided to Spearman, too, and his respect for nature’s cycle of provision and advocacy; and it’s a lament in which you feel Spearman reflecting on the long tail of violence against Native Americans and African-Americans without explicitly mentioning either.
Open Range is full of such simple but profound moments — friends steadying the gait of a wounded compatriot, a dog eagerly awaiting its companions’ return, that animal’s concerned and emotionally restorative collapse onto someone’s leg. It also accounts for how accumulating grievances against Baxter are grinding away at the good folks of Harmonville, from nervous-chatterbox stablehand Percy (Michael Jeter) to Mack (Peter MacNeill), a freight business owner who fears for his sons’ lives in the coming crossfire.
All of its characters find themselves on the edge and in the eye of the swift-moving storm, which arrives with no shortage of savagely satisfying payoffs. No need to spoil what transpires. Just know that it’s a platonic ideal of the genre, down to where its use of slow-motion crystallizes its outcomes as a legend for whatever generations remain in Harmonville. In Open Range, Costner understands there is much to savor about the splendor of America’s prairie and much to regret about all of the blood spilled on it then and now in the name of sometimes pointless principle.