By John H. Foote
Kevin Costner won an Academy Award for Best Director for his western epic Dances with Wolves (1990), which won six other Oscars including Best Picture, and saw the likable star nominated for Best Actor. This was very near the beginning of his career, when his baseball films Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989) had made him a huge star and box office draw. This recognition gave him the power to make a film he wanted to make, which was that Oscar winning western. At three hours running time, with one third of the film spoken in Lakota with subtitles, and a western, early reports on the film dubbed it Kevin’s Gate, with the industry expecting it to be a massive flop.
It was not … at all.
Instead the picture was a resounding success with critics and audiences, made the western popular again, turned Costner into a huge star and director, and to this day is a hugely likable film. Was it a better film than GoodFellas (1990)? Not at all, but it caught the imagination of North America, was the first great film to tell the story from the Native American point of view, albeit through the eyes of a white man, and atoned for the years of portraying the natives as blood thirsty savages. It was perhaps the first honest picture about the Native Americans and their lives, their betrayals by the whites, and their connection with the land.
In the years directly after the film, Costner scored again as an actor with JFK (1991) and gave his finest performance in A Perfect World (1993) for director Clint Eastwood. He was in the massive blockbuster The Bodyguard (1992) with pop princess Whitney Houston and it seemed his star would never dim. But oh how it did and when he fell, he fell hard.
Wyatt Earp (1994) was a massive flop, Waterworld (1995) was crucified by the critics and finally The Postman (1997), which he directed, was one of the biggest flops of the nineties, and mercilessly ripped apart by the critics.
Very slowly he began rebuilding his career and in 2003 released a western he had directed, displaying his deep love and mastery of the genre. Co-starring with the great Oscar winner Robert Duvall, Costner portrayed Charlie, a former gunfighter trying to find peace working with an open range cattleman, Spearman (Duvall) who is his father figure, mentor and spiritual guide. When one of their hired hands is beaten and then killed in the local town while buying supplies, he and Spearman journey into town to try and find out what happened. There they encounter Baxter (Michael Gambon), a vicious wealthy Irish cattle baron who owns the town and apparently everyone in it, terrorizing the locals with his bullying tactics. Baxter demands Spearman move his cattle away, but the old trail boss refuses, believing there is enough room for everyone. Baxter lashes back injuring Button, the young man working for Spearman.
Knowing Baxter will employ hired guns, Charlie tells Spearman of his past as a gunfighter and that this is how they need to play this one. With regret, Spearman agrees and listens to Charlie lay out their plan. Along the way Charlie is falling in love with the local doctor’s sister Sue (Annette Bening) who abhors violence but sees in Charlie a good man, a decent person struggling to be such. He is straight with her, telling her men are going to die and he is going to kill them, but it does not scare her away.
The gunfight is remarkably staged, fast, furious, loud, startling in its realism. The men line up and Charlie steps forward, asks a question and shoots the hired gun through the head before anyone can speak, and the bullets start flying. Charlie proves to be as good as he claimed, lightning fast and fearless, and Spearman is no slouch either with a rifle. Percy (Michael Jeter), an old man running the livery, proves to be a help to them, pointing out where the others are and blasting a few shots of his rifle. But is Charlie who rules the day, gunning down man after man, proving to be as deadly as he is ruthless with a gun.
Open Range has all the qualities of a great western and delivers to the audience everything they expect and then some from such a film. There are no questions as to who the good guys are, who the villain is, and the director superbly explores the main themes of the genre, man vs. man, and man vs. himself.
Costner gives one of the best performances of his career as Charlie, the dangerous, quiet man with a past, haunted by the ghosts he wears around his belt, and though Spearman suspects his friend’s past, it is never discussed till Charlie decides the time is right. He makes it clear he did not enjoy that life, but when necessary he is willing to strap on the guns and do it again. There is a sadness to Charlie that is unspoken, a sense of something missed, but an awareness that he might gain it with Sue. All business during the gunfight, steely eyed, there is little doubt that he was once a killer as he deals out death with no mercy and with absolute, frightening confidence.
Duvall is superb as always as Spearman, the old trail boss steeped in decency and old west virtues. He is in every way a good man, drawn into a terrible situation by a very evil man, Baxter, who enjoys far too much the power he wields over the townsfolk. The actor looks as at home in a western as John Wayne did, his face now wrinkled into sort of Mount Rushmore of goodness. Perfect casting.
As Baxter, Michael Gambon is frightening, willing to kill for a bit of grass, taking pride in the fear he elicits from the town, and the terror he tries to bring to Spearman and Charlie by going after their weaker employees. He is an entitled bully and monster and when he is shot to pieces and wheezing his last breaths, we feel nothing.
And Annette Bening, always lovely, is wonderful as Sue, a woman on the other side of forty who sees in Charlie a chance to give the love she has been saving up.
Michael Jeter, a beloved character actor so good in The Fisher King (1991), gives one of his last performances as Percy, filling the Walter Brennan role as the old codger who sides with the good guys and proves to be of more use than we think he can. Not as much as comic relief as Brennan was used for, instead Jeter has a deeply moving scene reading a letter Charlie leaves for Sue in the event he be killed. The Canadian actor has a splendid cameo as the other side’s gunslinger, gunned down in a single shot as the fight starts.
The film did very well the summer of 2003, was well reviewed, and in many ways is a better film than Dances with Wolves but being a western did not find the audience it needed to find some Oscar success. It should have, as it is one of the best westerns ever made, containing a realistic and frightening gunfight that gives some idea of how fast things happened with gunplay, and how important having a cool head and no fear meant. Certainly one of the best films of its year and the new century, Open Range proved yet again that the American western is one of the most enduring genres in film history.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.