22 April 2022

52 for '22: Open Range

MovieOpen Range (2003)
Method: Hulu

Why Did I watch this?

Listen...Open Range has a weird place in my heart. I remember it was 2003 and my grandparents wanted to take me and my brother to the movies for my birthday, which was in late August. And dammit, I really wanted to watch Open Range. It was definitely an inspired choice for a soon-to-be 17-year old. It looked cool, like there were cowboys on the range, it seemed really authentic and I was into it. No one else was, not even my grandparents, who you'd think having lived through this era, would want to watch it.

We went and saw Bad Boys II (2003) instead. Definitely the louder, more crowd-pleasing, easy to digest affair, but I always longed for what sliding doors could have been had literally anyone else in our group wanted to see Open Range. Since then it's just eluded me. It was never a sexy cable TV choice (unlike...Bad Boys II), and didn't even pop up on streaming for a long time. It had been on my Netflix DVD queue forever, like all the movies on this list, but also like most of these movies, I was never compelled to check it out. It's not the kind of movie that belies urgency. I knew I had to throw it on for this series this year, and when it popped up on Hulu this month - done!

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew it had Duvall and Costner and featured cowboys on some kind of open range. I didn't know too much more than that. Reading the Wikipedia entry as part of my intense preparation, I did remember that the ending gunfight is legendary (it totally fucking lives up the hype), but I really didn't know much else. It always felt like it was going to be a slow, methodical, deliberately paced Western.

How Was It?

This was a slow, methodical, deliberately paced Western. Nah, I really liked it though. It is a completely unnecessary two hours and nineteen minutes for reasons that escape me, but it's a pretty good time. It does star Duvall and Costner, doing their own "Who's More Grizzled" competition as two free range cattle ranchers who done get into some trouble with some more ornery settled down types.

Diego Luna and some other dude are their hired hands, and they all make sort of a living out there. the big dude gets into some trouble in the town and is roughed up. This is really a great revisionist Western, where the heroes don't necessarily immediately ride into town to seek vengeance. In fact, most of the conflict in the film comes from their debate about what to do and how to hold their own pride and freedom to make a living intact in the face of rabble-rousers and offenders. It's like TNG on the prairie. And yes, if you were wondering, Diego Luna's accent is pretty offensive.

So, let's talk Costner. I hadn't really realized it, but this dude makes a ridiculous amount of Westerns. It was all coming back to me - Dances with Wolves (1990) of course, Wyatt Earp (1994), Hatfields & McCoys, Yellowstone. I guess that's it, but Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997) also feel like westerns where he plays this sullen lone cowboy survivor dude. Also Michael Jeter is in this, who I only know from Waterworld, which is fun. He also plays the same exact character.

But this is the third of three movies Costner has directed, which is strange for an Academy-award winning director. I realized that I haven't seen many Kevin Costner movies, which is okay, I guess. The only real major ones I've seen is The Untouchables (1987), JFK (1991), and Waterworld. But he is like a major movie star, right? It's weird, he doesn't seem synonymous with the 90s like other stars do. Maybe that's because his biggest films were just huge bombs.

He also seems to just cast himself as the biggest badass in every film even though he can't really fully sell it. That holds true here. But his character has an interesting twist - he's a former hired gunman who did some horrible shit in the Civil War and beyond, but is trying to mend his ways. But he has repeated PTSD and can't always control his actions. Again, he fights fiercely with Robert Duvall, but he also acknowledges his attempt to change, but he's still just a killer. It's legitimately compelling stuff. We don't need every scene with him trying to bang the doctor's sister Annette Benning, but whatever.

Duvall is a legend here. He commands the entire movie. There is a great moment of restraint where Duvall convinces Costner not to murder an injured man when he's down (they came for killin' not murderin') and it looks like the man is going to reach for a fun and shoot Duvall in the back, showing perfect irony. They don't go that obvious route, though. I'm torn on whether or not Duvall should have lived, there are a few good death moments, including an inexplicable point-blank shoot-out with Dumbledore at the end of the film where he is not hit. But he is hit earlier! But he doesn't die. I mean, fine, that's great, I guess. Duvall is so genuine here that it's fun to watch. It's as if they took these stock western tropes and characters and just added depth and backstory. I love seeing Duvall and Costner in the candy shop buying Swiss chocolate before they go to what they think will be their death. It adds a human dimension to these characters where they don't sacrifice any of their masculinity, because that has already been well earned.

Michael Gambon is a sort of a stock Western town magnate baddie character. He is basically the turtle from Rango (2011). He's Irish for no reason other than I guess Gambon probably struggled with an American accent? It's fun to see him so villainous. He doesn't appear in many scenes, but is a perfect villain who makes a lasting impression early on and whose presence haunts the rest of the film despite not being on screen. The same goes for Kim Coates who plays the dude who kills Costner's friend early on. You never see him until the end, and don't really even know who he is except for his broken arm, which they said happened earlier. He waltzes in, backtacking the sheriff and taunting Costner. So he just shoots him in the head. It's refreshing and kicks off the best part of this film - the gunfight.

It's legit and I was glad to see that others thought so as well. I guess you have to sit through two hours of set-up for this to really pay off, but it happens so fast and feels so real. And by real I mean, they have finite bullets, they miss, they find cover, they have strategy, it pays off, then it doesn't, then it does again. It pushes story and character forward and you learn about these dudes and why they fight. It's fulfilling and wonderful and makes all the slow crap that came before it matter.

Well, almost. This makes Slow West (2015) feel like Crank (2006). It's the one thing that really brings this film down. It drags like crazy. Even something paced like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) would have been a little more satisfying. This goes right up the end where we drag out Annette Benning and Costner's relationship, where he doesn't even stay with her, he goes off to find his cows that, oh yeah, have been missing for like this entire movie.

And don't get me wrong, Benning is good, her role is pretty thankless, but she holds her own without anything really compelling to work with. I partly get the feeling that she's here just so everyone knows Costner isn't gay (literally the only woman with a substantial role on screen falls in love with him), and we don't get a ton of story progression out of their interaction.

In general, this is hearty recommend! I dug this film a lot, I don't know if I would have appreciated it as much nineteen years ago, but I was very glad to finally get it in!

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