Open Range (2003) Directed by Kevin Costner

I'm a pushover for a good Western. The Western represents for me a true picture of American attitudes and values that are still relevant to American life and culture. Of course it's often from a male perspective, but once a female character is introduced, it always adds extra depth to the vision . Once Upon A Time In The West and Red River being good examples of this.

Open Range brings nothing new to this genre, in fact it owes a big debt to the Clint Eastwood western, especially Eastwood's autumn years classic Unforgiven. Despite the familiarity and casual cliche, Open Rage works due to a great script, smart pacing and terrific performance from the central cast. Robert Duvall is masterful as the wise cattle crew leader Boss, dispensing orders with gruff realism. Costner directs with a lazy efficiency (again in an Eastwood style), letting the story open up gradually. It draws you in. Tension builds, and if the shoot out at the end is overly long, its visceral impact is still effective.

What impresses here are the small details. The sense of men spending years together in open plains, living a fairly boring existence. Male bonding through little knowledge, but doing the right thing for each other is never questioned. It's an old fashioned picture of male friendship for sure,  however a sense of homoerotic knowing still sneaks in. But Costner's trump card here is the introduction of the sublime Annette Bening.
She almost spits her lines with disdain, so patronizing is her role of the unmarried middle aged nurse. You know she doesn't believe the bullshit of what her part is defined as, so she adds some modern perspective as to what she requires from her killer lover prospect (Costner's Charley Waite). Costner and Bening's romance is unbelievable in so many ways, yet you want it to happen and this adds extra tension to the story.

Open Range is a worthy late western, great storytelling compensates some of the films obvious flaws. Watching Bening here, you realize that Warren's luck has never really run out.

Cowboys in the Western film genre signify the outsiders. They question forming and existing social structures and their stability both internally and externally. Open Range so purely sets its drama around this outsider/insider issue that there is almost nowhere left to go from there.

Yet, I have to admit, Open Range was a thoroughly enjoyable film. And because it was not a Clint Eastwood picture, women did not need to get raped and nearly killed for the leading man (actually there were two) to get a justification for his violence. There is a simplistic grace here of not needing to go too far in depicting the cruelty of the fight.

But there is a fight. The town's rangers do not like free grazers passing through their land. Why? Because they move their heard onwards, they are always moving on for more grass, better weather, finer landscapes and so on. These cowboys remind the town that their stability and location is actually fluid and their borders are penetrable and changeable.

I have noticed that a band on tour has this same effect. We are only passing through your town, we upset the existing order by creating a small corner with our performance and our funny clothes. There is always someone who would like to come with us. There is always someone who feels aggressive towards us. And all the while the true battle is the internal one within each band member about missing a home and loving the road at the same time.

Being a cowboy is a question of degree. In my opinion, Kevin could never have Annette because she has Warren.


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