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Photograph by Chris Large

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Hats: Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall round up some genre clichés in 'Open Range.'

Prairie World

Kevin Costner tries to fit too many ways to remake the Western in 'Open Range'

By Richard von Busack

DIRECTOR JOHN FORD used to be famous for tearing handfuls out of a Western script before filming, in the hopes of making it move faster. Ford's method could have served Open Range. Kevin Costner tries on and discards a variety of ways to shape the film--Western as capitalist struggle, Western as post-Vietnam malaise, Western as male malaise. Costner's Charley Waite is, we're meant to guess, a Civil War version of a Green Beret, with a little post-traumatic stress disorder going on. He and his longtime companion Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) have been herding free-range beeves across Montana for 10 years. They run into a local thug named Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who claims the land. When there's conflict in town, the two partners are forced to leave the sacred range.

During their absence, masked regulators from the town attack the wagon, which is guarded by Charley's surrogate kid, Button (Diego Luna from Y Tu Mamá También). The dog gets it, too. Since we remember the dog getting it in Dances With Wolves, it's no surprise. This particular dog, who is called Tig, always seems to be calculating when his next close-up is going to be, anyway. The wounded Button is hauled to town to be fixed by a doctor, who cohabits with a pioneer lady (Annette Bening), a situation that traps our heroes in town.

In one sequence, Boss starts dosing the villains with chloroform. Some of the fumes seemed to leak into the movie. I worry that any kind of Western, with its slow buildup, its moral questions and its shy romance, looks quaint to the young; I fear that a young audience feels free to snicker, in a way they don't chuckle at something so much worse, like Bad Boys II. In Costner's hands, Open Range is excessively formal. As an actor, he doesn't have a voice or a face that suggests unspeakable experiences--he's an ageless kid. So to play catch up, he has to speak about his feelings at length, when he and his Boss share their sensitive side.

Open Range has its moments. In the inevitable shootout, the single shots are amped up, with big-caliber bullets slapping into pine boards. The squalidness and the excitement of the danger are matched; Costner portrays the gunfight not as a noble contest but as a disgusting necessity, like killing rats. A good deal of Open Range takes place during a flash flood; the rain confines people in small, crowded spaces, as a contrast to the outdoors (and when a fight almost breaks out, the room's packed with noncombatants who have no place to go). And the late Michael Jeter does some faultless Walter Brennaning. But nothing taxes the film as much as Duvall and Costner's awareness that they're frontier legends. Open Range is soaked with so much self-conscious poetry that the film drips. The script by Craig Storper (from a novel by the perennial Western writer Lauran Paine) makes the fatal mistake of stressing character building over the rawer pleasures of a Western.

Open Range (R; 140 min.), directed by Kevin Costner, written by Craig Storper, based on the novel by Lauran Paine, photographed by James Muro and starring Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Bening, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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