OPEN RANGE (2003)
As much as I appreciate classic westerns starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Clint Eastwood, and in spite of my opinion that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is the true masterpiece of the genre and is deserving of my highest esteem, the film that I consider my favorite western is Kevin Costner’s “Open Range.” It’s not the only film with memorable characters, a lean and compelling plot, and beautiful western scenery. And it’s not the only one with a good shootout, or with moral considerations that pit conscience against the matter-of-fact and largely unavoidable ruthlessness of the Old West. But it is that rare film that has a heart and soul. and I find it completely satisfying.
A young Kevin Costner costarred in “Silverado,” a film which I have just recently re-watched, and which is given much credit for resuscitating the western genre back in the 1980’s. Although a good film in many respects, it is a bit too self-conscious in its emulation of classic Hollywood westerns. It has a plot, of course, but it rambles so much that one finds it difficult to summarize it afterwards. Unlike “Open Range,” which has an elegant, understated soundtrack that is used parsimoniously, “Silverado” is constantly intruded upon by bombastic music that distracts rather than enhances. And in “Silverado,” Kevin Costner plays little more than a caricature, whereas, in “Open Range,” his role is that of a fleshed out human being.
As with most westerns, “Open Range” makes use of sweeping landscapes. There is no parched desert here, but we do get a fair helping of rolling hills and lazy river valleys set against a background of rugged, snow-laden peaks. Rather than the magnificent blue skies to which we’ve grown accustomed, though, we get dark skies and rain. In fact, the town’s main street is so flooded by the downpour that it becomes a veritable river. It is not incidental, but rather contributes significantly to plot and setting. Speaking of towns, “Open Range” does center much of its action in a typical western town (custom-built for this film, however, and dismantled afterwards) that cowers to a corrupt sheriff. And, true to the film’s title, the main story line does involve the classic western conflict between ranchers and free grazers. But weaved into the film’s plot is a simple, yet utterly believable love story. It’s not an exposition, an afterthought, or a character statement. It’s just as much a part of the film, and just as authentic in its depiction, as the inevitable climactic shootout with guns that must be reloaded, frightened townsfolk that escape to the hills, and dead bodies that must be buried in the aftermath of the bloodshed. Finally, the dialogue in “Open Range” is not polished in the least. Not only are the characters plain spoken, but much of what is said comes across as insipid and vastly uninspired. Some viewers might fault the screenplay. Not me. I find the dialogue refreshingly authentic.
Sometimes one cannot justify, by way of pure analysis, the favor one showers upon a film. Some films just have a quality about them that one finds personally appealing. And it’s not necessarily the masterpiece that wins the most favor. I’ll be watching “Once Upon a Time in the West” again soon. But I had to watch “Open Range” first.