At the Movies...with Mark Moorehead
General Audience: B+
Friendly high plains wranglers run into unfriendly city folk in this unconventional Western drama. No language or nudity. Western gunfight violence.
Family Audience: C+
Shootouts are realistic and violent. Good overcomes evil while elevating universal themes of loyalty, honesty and self-sacrifice. Rated R.
Not only did Oscar-winner Kevin Costner choose Tempe’s Valley Art Theater to premiere his latest film; he personally accompanied its debut to make himself available to the media for questions immediately following the screening. So why Tempe, you ask.
It’s because our own and other Valley cities seem to have gained prominence for their ability to represent a microcosm of America. Virtually everyone living here is from somewhere else. Hollywood is discovering that, and has decided our area is a perfect place to test-drive new films.
Open Range represents Costner’s return to the genre he enjoys and, above all, is exceptionally good at.
His Academy Award-winning Western film Dances with Wolves was a box office success because of his fresh approach to history, coupled with an ability to capture the ineffable beauty of a vast western landscape where the buffalo roamed.
Costner succeeds in this genre once again with drama, wit, well-developed characters, awesome Canadian mountain scenery and heart-stopping action sequences. With a little help from some longtime friends, he is clearly back in the saddle again.
Costner plays wrangler Charley Waite, with Robert Duvall taking the role of sidekick Boss Spearman. They are joined by fellow cowhands Button (played by Diego Luna) and Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi).
This foursome smoothly drives a herd of cattle through big sky country until they run into Harmonville, a small town with an attitude.
In Harmonville, these tough, independent, soft-spoken men meet friend and foe alike. Local resident Sue Barlow (played by Annette Bening) and stable owner Percy (Michael Jeter) are friendly.
However, rancher Denton Baxter (played by Michael Gambon) is the archetypical foe determined to wipe out these good-for-nothing “free grazers.”
Big Button and little Mose are like the sons Charlie Waite never had. When Button fails to return from a trip into Harmonville, Boss and Charlie pay a visit to this one-company town, where they are forced to confront Denton, the ruthless rancher, and a corrupt sheriff.
Robert Duvall rules in his role as Boss. His technical approach to performance and comic timing are pure perfection. For example, realizing he’ll probably not be able to leave Harmonville alive, Boss decides he may as well enjoy his final hours. He ambles up to the local drugstore counter and asks for a Cuban cigar and the most expensive chocolate candy bar made. The pleasure he derives from both can’t help but produce laughs.
Duvall and Costner click so well as a team in Open Range that I was reminded of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
In an interview following the screening, I asked Costner if that film had any influence on how he constructed the relationship between Boss and Charlie.
“I like that film, so I’ll take that as a compliment,” replied Costner. “But, certainly Boss and I don’t come off as a romantic couple like Redford and Newman, who were handsome.
“I think the charm is how Charlie and Boss talked to each other, that they’ve lived a life of very few words. It was a time when it was not unusual for men to keep the past to themselves and the notion that they did not ask each other much. There’s a certain charm in their secrecy.
“And, I think the relationship between those two is the hallmark of the movie. Charlie backing up Boss and Boss trying to speak for all of us.”
Costner, an extremely fit man of 48 who sports a head of close-cropped gray hair, seems more like a friendly neighbor than a Hollywood director and actor.
In spite of having invested over $20 million of his own money in the movie, he appeared relaxed at his media session. His answers were thoughtful, sincere and a little self-deprecating.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Western, beginning with the movie Stagecoach.
I asked Costner why audiences are still captivated by the Western genre.
“I don’t know that they are. There are so many bad Westerns,” he said.
“It’s a difficult genre to actually film. You just can’t do the floppy hat and the ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ because audiences don’t want that. I don’t even know if they want this movie. I wanted this movie, and I just presented it the best way and the most relevant way that it would have meaning to you wrapped up in entertainment.”
It’s clear Costner marches to the beat of a different drummer. He’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t crank out formula films to satisfy the lowest common denominator and make a fast buck.
He enjoys jumping from genre to genre with films like Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and Tin Cup with sports themes to politics with JFK and 13 Days.
He has no regrets regarding his less successful films such as Waterworld or The Postman. Costner expresses pride in those efforts and says he will continue to make movies he is passionate about, no matter what the current flavor is in Hollywood.
To sum up Costner’s philosophy about filmmaking, William Shakespeare may have said it best: “To thine self be true.”