This article originally appeared on MovieRob’s blog, here.
I was invited to do this article by MovieRob for his Genre Grandeur series for January, which focuses on period (as opposed to contemporary setting) Westerns. I’ve chosen to analyze Kevin Costner’s 2003 film Open Range. Thanks to Rob for hosting this event!
The Western genre is a strange and uniquely American species of film, despite its overseas imitators and its own tendency to imitate foreign originals, principally Japanese samurai films. The fortunes of the Western as a film genre have risen and fallen over the decades, often in tandem with political and cultural trends. The “Golden Age” of the Western was roughly the 1940s to the 1960s, the height of the Cold War; since the A Fistful of Dollars era (late 1960s) the Western has gone in and out of favor several times. The 21st century has seemed a particularly baffling time for the genre. No one believes those old “white hat/black hat” tropes anymore; Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) thoroughly deconstructed its mythology, and in the post 9/11 era who wants to indulge in moral absolutism on the high prairie anymore anyway? Open Range, released in 2003, just maybe opened the door a crack to explore a possible new path forward for this old genre in a new century. The “big” Western is out. Open Range demonstrates the virtues of going small.
As Westerns go, Open Range tells a pretty intimate story. Charley (Kevin Costner) and his much-older friend Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) are freelance cowboys working the open range in Montana in 1882. Their gang includes Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna, of Y Tu Mama Tambien and recently Star Wars: Rogue One fame). In the town of Harmonville, Mose runs into trouble with the henchmen of Baxter (Michael Gambon), an Irish-born land baron who is trying to squeeze open range men out of business. Mose winds up beaten up and in jail. After Charley and Boss go to town to free him, another attack kills Mose and leaves Button near death. Charley and Boss seek the town doctor, whose sister Sue (Annette Bening) strikes a chord with Charley. The quest for justice for the attacks on their friends ultimately becomes a conflict with Baxter and his men, with larger overtones for who should have dominion over the West: wealthy landowners, or the common men who live and work off the land?
The themes of Open Range are as old as Westerns themselves. Range wars and class struggle have long been staples of Western films and fiction, and this certainly isn’t the first time that a wealthy rancher or landowner has been portrayed as the heavy. What I think is a little different about Open Range, though, is its tone. The film, its dialogue, even the way it’s shot and edited conveys a feeling of humble straightforwardness, as if Costner, who directed, and screenwriter Craig Storper, basing the material on a Lauran Paine novel, had no greater aspirations than to tell the stories of this handful of people and their conflict in and around the town of Harmonville. In reality Open Range really is about the broader themes of land ownership, economic conflict, individuality and destiny, but Costner manages to fool you into thinking the film couldn’t care less about that. And if you didn’t care about any of these broader themes, Open Range would still be an extremely enjoyable, well-made and beautiful film.
A tense “saloon scene” is a staple in almost all Western movies. Here’s the one from Open Range.
That the film is so successful at “going small” is especially interesting because it’s the opposite direction Costner himself chose to go with his 1990 classic Dances With Wolves, which emerged as one of the greatest Westerns of all time (and one-half of the duo of pictures, the other being Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, that defined the genre in the 1990s). Everything about Dances With Wolves is big: its epic vistas, John Barry’s booming score, the themes of genocide and the clash of civilizations, and its 3-hour running time. While made very competently with state-of-the-art technology, Open Range would have worked just as well if it was filmed on a studio backlot in black-and-white in the 1950s with a television crew, which was how many Western films were made at that time. Yet, unlike those chintzy 1950s productions, Open Range manages to pull off a burnished, stylish and halfway authentic look.
Part of the success of the “go small” strategy is Costner’s emphasis on characters, and his actors’ intimate performances. Costner has never been a great actor, with his blank stare and monotone delivery, but in Open Range Duvall in particular delivers an incredibly understated performance as Boss Steadman that emphasizes the man’s humility, integrity and gentleness, even as he is driven to distasteful acts of violence. Annette Benning as the doctor’s sister, and Costner’s eventual love interest, strikes a similarly quiet and humanistic tone. I’ve always loved Diego Luna, and though he doesn’t get much screen time here when he is onscreen (and conscious) he’s quite endearing. Even the villain, Michael Gambon, one of the great British actors of our time, resists the urge to chew scenery. His final scenes emphasize his humanity rather than his villainy. Open Range cares about its characters, where many Westerns, even Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, are more concerned with archetypes.
The shootout from Open Range has been praised by critics as one of the best-ever in a Western movie. Here’s a taste of it. (Spoilers, of course).
That said, it’s not a perfect film. Costner’s performance is probably the weakest link, and honestly he doesn’t generate much personal chemistry with Bening. (Spoiler alert) The ending of the film, where Charley proposes to Sue, is awfully ham-handed and comes off as a bit of a cliché. Some sequences also run a little too long, while the celebrated gunfight seems almost too short (although this was by design). A bit uneven in its execution, one senses that Costner perhaps got lucky with how well Dances With Wolves turned out. But at least he understands what Westerns are and what they can do, and one must give him credit for not attempting to replicate the big scope and big story of Dances.
The new century is now 16 years old, and comparatively few Westerns have been made in that time, at least when contrasted with how popular the genre was in previous eras. I don’t think Hollywood knows what to do with Westerns anymore, and I doubt independent studios have much interest in what must seem like an old horse that was beaten to death long ago. Open Range at least breathes a fresh spark into some very traditional ideas. Sometimes it really is better to “go small” than to “go big.”