Having been born in the fifties of the last century I am familiar with westerns from the early days of Hollywood and the later era in the sixties. Now these two styles were as different as night and day. The earlier movies represented a simpler more idealized version of the old west. The sixties represented the era of the anti-hero and the anti-heroic west. Both of these periods produced memorable films. I have favorites from both periods and depending on the mood can enjoy either. In the last twenty years, some good westerns have been made. Interestingly they represent an evolution that contains aspects of both these earlier film types. Unlike the earlier films, they do not represent an idealized world and at the same time they lack the relentlessly negative depiction of the sixties western. Let’s say it’s a more balanced approach. So, some of these new movies appeal to me for a variety of reasons. Some are remakes of earlier classics. One of these, True Grit, I’ve already reviewed. Some are new stories like Open Range. I’ll say what I like about this story and why.
The plot of the story is a familiar one. It’s settlers versus herders. A small herd owner passes through a town run by a rich tyrannical landowner, Denton Baxter (played to the hilt by Michael Gambon) who controls the sheriff and attacks and kills any free grazing herders that come through his land. His men attack and kill one of the cowboys and injure another. The herd owner, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), and his lead man, Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner), come back to the town to get a doctor for their shot friend and to get justice. The narrative runs to a climactic gun fight. Mixed in is a love story between Waite and the doctor’s sister, Sue Barlow (Annette Bening). Seeing as Costner and Bening aren’t kids anymore, the love story is appealing to people of my generation and fits in with the theme of a changing world closing off one familiar lifestyle while opening up a better one to those willing to see.
So, this is a pretty standard plot. Why do I like it?
First off, the look and feel of the movie. It must have been filmed in the Canadian Rockies. The panoramic views and the outdoor scenes are fantastic to look at. The scenes in the town look good. They spent enough money to make the sets look authentic. The soundtrack is first rate.
Second, the portrayals by all the leads and many of the supporting characters are well done and very engaging. I’m a fan of Duvall’s and the chemistry between him and Costner makes the movie work. The Costner/Bening love story is understated and enjoyable.
Third and most important, the gun fight at the end is epic. Our heroes Duvall and Costner line up against five men and then fight their way through the rest of the gang to stay alive and win the day. So why is it so good? Well first off, these have to be the loudest guns ever fired. Even sitting in my living room, I can feel the percussion rattling my teeth. Honestly, I doubt there were Iowa Class battleships with guns this robust. Secondly, Kevin Costner was lucky enough to own revolvers that were twenty-five-shooters. He would peel off ten shots at one adversary before moving on to another dozen shots at the next opponent. This can be both dramatically useful and conducive to a gunfighter’s health. And finally, the bad guys are so enjoyably bad. One villain even brags about how much he enjoyed shooting someone in the head just as he himself gets shot practically right between the eyes. The lead villain, Baxter is continuously issuing threats and insults at anyone he sees and is thoroughly despicable. It’s truly a pleasure seeing him dispatched by our heroes’ thunderously loud and apparently infinitely loaded shooting irons.
Open Range is one of my favorite modern westerns. In style, I think it throws back more to the pre-sixties westerns. But it is so well-acted and generally well made that it actually updates many of the conventions it adheres to and gives them new life. I highly recommend it. And the ladies like it too. So, throw it in for date night. You can’t go wrong.