But the promise of a gun-blazing Western was too hard to resist, even with Costner calling the shots. After all, I still respected that this was the guy who made the magnificent Dances With Wolves. So when it hit the DVD shelves I bravely took a $6.00 punt, but with one finger firmly on the eject button, ready to fling the disc out the window. Over two hours later I found myself lamenting that the film was over and asking myself “Had I had just seen one of the best Westerns ever made?”
Although Open Range is one of the best modern Western’s ever made, it is for the patient and mature viewer: those who prescribe to Michael Bay’s sensibilities of cinema need not bother. From the Western perspective, Open Range does not reinvent the wheel: instead it dives right in and bravely embraces the genre in all its glory. This is a film that - on paper - should’ve failed dismally. But instead, it works like magic.
It follows a conventional ‘good guys versus bad guys’ plot, with Costner and Duvall playing two cowboys pitted against a greedy and violent rancher and his posse of thugs. But there’s no winking at the audience here. Open Range takes its premise seriously, despite the characters all being familiar archetypes. We have the salty old cattleman, the grisly gunslinger, a crooked sheriff, a dastardly rancher and a weathered, apron-wearing frontier woman. The film’s towering achievement is that it makes these archetypes so wonderfully three-dimensional and human. Robert Duvall is a joy to watch, and his character provides the moral anchor for Costner’s brooding anti-hero. Every performance is engaging and real, never tipping over into Little House on the Prairie territory despite skating dangerously close to the edge.
But the most impressive aspect of Open Range is how truly bold it is from a storytelling perspective. It does the one thing that most films would not dare in this day and age: it is virtually void of action for the first two hours, opting instead for character driven drama. It saves its hard-boiled, gun-blazing antics for the climactic showdown - and boy, does it work a treat. After two hours of flirting and foreplay, when the moment finally comes it is all the more satisfying and well-earned earned. Costner rewards us with one of the most wonderfully staged and intense gunfights in Western cinema history. Forget gun-twirling acrobatics and over-the-top stunts; this is a gritty, realistic man-to-man fight where bullets do not kill straight away and the good guys also get hit. For once, I was on the edge of my seat during a movie gunfight asking “how is this possible”?
Instead of a slew of skirmishes and violence throughout, Open Range opts to withhold and build character and tension instead. When the inevitable gunfight arrives, we are as invested in its outcome as those involved. As the hour draws closer, you’re not even sure you want to go through with it for fear that our heroes may not make it out alive. Over the last two hours we have fallen in love with them and we understand what they’re up against. The anticipation has been wracked up to breaking point, and when the guns start blazing their impact is truly felt. By God, we want our heroes to succeed, but we know it won’t be easy for them to get that result.
It’s not without some niggling faults; some of Costner’s direction is a little heavy-handed at times and the score by the late Michael Kamen is often ‘on the nose’. But these momentary bits of cheese are easily forgiven in light of its overwhelming strengths. Instead of racing through the drama, Costner bravely holds us captive in character moments and remains there, allowing us to intimately learn what makes our heroes tick and most importantly, why we should care about them. When a movie can move you emotionally by a cowboy buying a china tea-set for a woman he fancies, you know the drama is working. Open Range almost throws the movie-making rulebook out the window, and against all the odds it’s better for it.
Open Range feels a filmmaker crafting a story he loves without impatient studio heads asking him to hack it to pieces. It is a true shame that Costner’s reputation hampered its release, despite it being well received critically. The film is well respected by fans of the genre but unfortunately it remains widely unknown by the general public, and deserves far more recognition than it ever got. For me, the cinema sins of Costner’s past were swept away by Open Range. If he ever returns to the genre again, next time I will be there on opening weekend with my popcorn and high expectations.