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Perfectly at home on the 'Range'

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Despite its decades of decline, the Western, that grand and glorious American form, will never entirely succumb to the vagaries of taste and time. Expressing, no matter how crudely and falsely at times, some notions of ourselves as a people, it simply means too much to our history and more important, to our mythology. Its celebration of adventure, violence, and freedom, its display of a vast, dramatic landscape, its dedication to an ideal of movement and potential, even its pervasive undercurrent of melancholy all suit the national fantasy we often regard as the American dream.

            Together with his previous work as both actor and director --- Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Dances With Wolves --- Kevin Costner's new movie, Open Range, demonstrates a measure of his own commitment to the form. He's ridden those dusty, dangerous trails before and apparently profited from the experience. The film itself, which he directed and stars in, resembles numerous predecessors, inevitable in any addition to a history that spans a hundred years in American cinema and two hundred in American literature. The accumulated layers of its rich past necessarily reveal themselves in virtually any contemporary reinterpretation of a firmly established, thoroughly familiar, and densely populated genre, so that the movie recalls many others that precede it in its long tradition.

            Costner plays Charley Waite, who --- with his friend and mentor Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and two cowhands --- drives a herd of cattle across the open range of the title. The men encounter trouble in the person of a powerful rancher, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who refuses to allow anyone to drive cattle across the range, which he regards as his private fief. He enforces his entirely illegitimate claim with the help of a gang of hired gunmen and a corrupt marshal, controlling the little Western town of Harmonville where most of the action takes place.

            When Baxter's thugs kill one of the cowhands and seriously wound another, Spearman and Waite naturally decide to fight back, moving the action from the empty, beautiful landscape to the muddy, squalid enclosure of the hamlet, thus in a classic maneuver shifting Open Range from one subgenre to another, from a cattle-drive Western to a revenge Western, and in the process emphasizing some of the economic conflict that often enlivens the form.

            Because of its values of honor, courage, loyalty, and freedom, the genre and its geography demand the transformation. Besides, as every Western hero knows and says in one way or another, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." Once the two men choose their course of action, the rest of the picture depends upon the relatively simple business of their plans for a showdown with the gang, and, as a natural result, their preparations to face the prospect of their own deaths.

            Following another Western tradition of significant silences and profound pauses, the occasion offers the two men a number of opportunities for laconic philosophizing. From the opening sequences, in fact, the two friends discuss their values in words of one syllable as they instruct their younger companions in the proper conduct of one's life, reveal some hidden truths about themselves, and affirm their friendship. Charley, who falls in love with the town doctor's sister (Annette Bening), even manages to woo her with his honesty, his simple dignity, and, despite his brutal history as a gunslinger, a certain gentleness of speech and manner.

            Until its climactic gunfight, the picture proceeds deliberately, building its action upon the relationship between the two men and its meanings upon the terse eloquence of their prose. The camera sweeps across the great green spaces and the magnificent mountains, settling always on the countenances of the two actors, their faces at times as rugged and expressive as the land they roam. Both Costner and Duvall inhabit their characters fully, underplaying throughout, suggesting both thought and emotion through a minimum of gesture and a stringently understated manner of delivery: beneath the surface of violence, the Westerner is essentially a man of dignity and silence.

            Despite the equality between the two actors and the relaxed ease of the athletic Costner, Robert Duvall really dominates the picture. His hard-bitten manner, his tight self control, and his calm, ironic style convey deep feeling through a paradoxical repression. Neither young nor handsome nor physically imposing, he seems as perfectly at home in the setting as any of the great cowboy heroes, and he can squint meaningfully across an expanse of country just as well as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. More disciplined and less sentimental than Dances With Wolves, Open Range represents a significant achievement for Costner and for Duvall, yet another triumph in a distinguished career.

Open Range, starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates, Herb Kohler; based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine; screenplay by Craig Storper; directed by Kevin Costner.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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