By John H. Foote

(***) In Limited Theatres

Had anyone ever told me that the Clint Eastwood of the seventies would age into a formidable, very fine actor, I would have laughed in their face. Squinting, steel jaws Dirty Harry (1971) or the man who frolicked with an orangutan, a fine actor? Sure.

Yet through the eighties Eastwood challenged himself with roles that demanded depth in the performance and each time he gave the part just that. Bronco Billy (1980), Honky Tonk Man (1982), Tightrope (1985) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) gave us a more substantial Eastwood, until finally Unforgiven (1992) landed him in the Best Actor race at the Oscars. He did not win, though he did win Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. That Best Actor nod, and the second for Million Dollar Baby (2004), announced to audiences that Eastwood had aged into a great actor.

Is the same happening to Kevin Costner?

The topsy-turvy career that followed his Oscar winning western Dances with a Wolves (1990), for which he too won Best Director and Best Film, seems to be behind him as he has aged into playing hard core bad ass, often darkly violent men, or troubled guys coming to terms with themselves. He began playing likeable all-American men in The Untouchables (1987), Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989). Costner has always had a dangerous side, best seen in Clint Eastwood’s darkly brilliant A Perfect World (1993) which many critics hail his best performance. I thought he was magnificent in his self-directed Open Range (2003) in which he was frightening as a one-time assassin in the Old West, regretfully strapping on his guns again.

Costner goes as dark as he might have ever gone here as George, a former lawman, now a horse rancher running their family farm with his wife, Margaret, portrayed by Diane Lane. Suffice the two have extraordinary chemistry together as husband and wife. When tragedy strikes their home, with the accidental death of their son, they vow to protect his widow and their grandson. But a few years later when she re-marries a young man with a history of abuse, and Margaret witnesses her new man’s casual, ruthless cruelty, she believes their grandson is in serious danger.

George and Margaret ask around and discover the Weboy clan have pulled stakes and left town with no idea where they went. But George and Margaret refuse to give up, and find them, realizing the Weboys are a dangerous family of sociopaths with no regard for law and order. The new husband is one thing, a bully, but the matriarch of the clan, Blanche (Lesley Manville), is a monster who has no regard for right or wrong, and controls those around her with quiet threats of harm that she will make happen.

When Margaret makes clear her intention of taking home their grandson, enemies are made, dark, vicious enemies.

Director Thomas Bezucha balances the film nicely, the first half melancholy as grief grips the lives of the characters. But shockingly he bathes the last third in shocking scenes of violence that are as alarming as they are shocking. We know long before Margaret knows that this fight will come to violence, while George always knew, I think, which is why he goes along on the search.

Costner is superb as the hard-drinking horse rancher who seems silently seething with rage and is like a bomb about to go off. He reminded me of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976), sizing everything up before he lashes out. It might be the most explosive performance of his career. There is an easy chemistry between Costner and Diane Lane, long one of the finest least appreciated actresses in movies. Clearly she wears the boots on the farm, and it is very much her decision to go after her grandson, whether George goes along or not. Fiery, equally intense, Lane is brilliant.

As the maniacal sociopath Blanche, I think Lesley Manville is evil incarnate and the actress leaps into the Oscar race with a compelling performance dripping in toxic acid.

A modern day western, the director gives us soaring skies dotted with white clouds, juxtaposing the beauty of the land with the ugliness of the Weboy family and the explosive, sudden violence.

Brilliant and unsettling, the performances elevate this film into something very special.

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