“Always good to let things breathe,” Annette Bening says in Open Range, Costner's fine return to making fine films, and though she's talking about a wound healing between gunfights, her line carries transparent meaning for Costner. It might be the tagline for the movie posters, or at least crocheted on a handkerchief and hung over Costner's pantry. Setting his film against the sprawling prairies of Alberta, Canada - filling in for the western plains of the United States just after the Civil War - he's made another moseying, quasi-revisionist epic that's a western in the old, classic sense, but not as old-fashioned as he thinks.
If anything, like most of his westerns, Open Range has less in common with the 1950s studio westerns they resemble (and Costner clearly admires) than what lingers in your head after a lazy Saturday afternoon of watching Bend of the River on cable: prairies, guns, the sleepy story of men and cattle.
A Costner western - even a bad one - is at once a pose and deeply sincere. My favorite is Silverado, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who then lost that film's light step with Costner in Wyatt Earp. Costner's flaky, heartfelt Dances With Wolves won him a Best Director Oscar, beating Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas (and lending a what-were-they-thinking footnote to movie history). But Costner's neo-western, The Postman, his second directing job, cost him a career.
Open Range, his return to directing, sits flatly in the middle, passably enjoyable, taking its wagon-train time to tell the archetypal tale of men making a last stand; if anything, you get the feeling Costner just wants to know if he still has the skills. It's an exercise, but it builds up steam, and delivers a knockout of a final gunfight that's simply one of the most exciting I've ever seen.
Townsfolk evacuate into the hills, adding to the nervous anticipation. Sides are drawn, battle plans gone over, wills written. And finally a shot is fired. Costner seems to have the made the movie for this one sequence. He combines the harsh reality of a 19th-century gunfight (short, brutal) with the romantic image (long, spectacular) in impressive ways. He starts his actors in close quarters, gun barrel to the gut stuff, then expands out into pitched hunkering-down. And on and on, long soundless patches broken by deep hollow rat-a-tats. In fact, more than any western, it resembles the daytime Los Angeles shootout between the Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat - it's more Beirut than Tombstone.
What opens Costner to cheap shots (including the ones in this review), are the pregnant pauses in his work, the self-consciousness wanting to come off as if it's anything but - that and the length of his movies, including this one, which flatlines the considerable tension he often skillfully creates. Costner is a noble lost cause, and a maddening, self-adoring egotist - the prettiest wallflower in the room - but one worth paying attention to from time to time.
When we find Costner here, he has the wounded, sad eyes of a man actively courting comparisons between his onscreen persona and his offscreen. Think Clint in Unforgiven. But Costner is more comfortable than he wants to let on. The first few scenes tip his hand: He and Robert Duvall ride high in the saddle against landscapes that Ansel Adams would find heartbreaking, clouds trailing into a big sky, mountain ranges off in the distance, etc. Cattle rumble through. A picturesque rainstorm floods the valley. A sunrise glows deep auburn.
“Beautiful country,” Duvall says like a tourist, though his character, a haunted man who lives by “the Code of the West,” is a drifter. “It's easy to forget a man can get lost out here.”
Then later, he says, again looking across the horizon, “Creates quite a picture.”
“Yeah, I heard they're worth a thousand words,” Costner answers, giving himself permission for more worshipful shots of the landscape, frontier towns, etc. It's all lovely and carries Open Range across a few of the narrative cow patties Costner lays. But somehow I wouldn't expect crusty career cattlemen to wax poetic on the beauty of the open range any more than I'd bet New England shellfishermen regularly ponder the mysteries of low tide.
Costner and Duvall are freegrazers, cattle drivers who don't own land. They move their herd across open country that's still mostly unclaimed. But land is becoming a commodity in the settling West, and freegrazing carries a social stigma in a fractured nation that's creeping slowly away from the lawlessness of the frontier. Passing by one podunk cowboy outpost, Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) run across a sheriff and his lackeys who are offended by freegrazing itself - not because Boss and Charley have stepped on their land. They set upon Boss and Charley and their two cattle hands in more or less the same mindless way homeless people are occasionally attacked. That's basically the film's conflict: land lovers discriminating against open rangers. And that's a smart, compelling idea, though Costner makes his point so opaquely, you're likely to be convinced the story leads to a showdown because westerns are contractually obligated to end with a showdown.
The rest includes a nurse (Bening) who falls for Charley, and a subplot about Charley's mental trauma (Civil War shell shock, I think). Costner is more attentive to Duvall, who gets a showcase for his intimidating bravado; he's also better with the small stuff than the big picture: There's a nice scene where Costner can't decide how to step into a saloon because the rain has washed out the road in front (a drawback of pre-sewer America), and another where he has trouble fitting his fingers into the handle of a tea cup designed for dainty 19th-century women. Indeed, that kind of detail would fit even better into a 90-minute western.
But no one makes a low-key western anymore: The act of taking on America's defining movie genre stands for too much now. Open Range is nothing new or remarkable, and it's not even close to containing the genuine mud-caked soul of a good Clint Eastwood western, but it's just fine, thank you, and fine is enough - as close to the humble aura of Gary Cooper as Kevin Costner can still summon. “You may not know this,” he tells Bening, “but there are things that gnaw at a man worse than dying.” What an odd way to apologize for The Postman.