I know what you're thinking because I thought it too: Does the world really need another Kevin Costner epic Western? But while I don't pretend to go into movies without any preconceived notions, I'm always willing to be pleasantly surprised (read: wrong), and "Open Range" is more than just good -- it's a proud, powerfully acted paradigm of cinema Americana.
From its gorgeous photography of the wide-open prairie -- across which actor-director Costner and Robert Duvall drive cattle as some of the last "freegrazers" of the cowboy era -- to their brutal, wide-ranging, Peckinpah-worthy climactic shootout in a dusty town run by an iron-fisted rancher (Michael Gambon), this is some of Costner's best work in front of or behind the camera.
More like "Unforgiven" than "Dances With Wolves" (and thankfully nothing at all like "The Postman," which was something of a futuristic Western), "Open Range" takes its time (an authentic Western shouldn't have a modern Hollywood pace) telling an unpretentious story of rugged but peaceful men surrendering to the enticement of revenge after the rancher's henchmen attack the freegrazers' camp, killing one of their young apprentices and leaving another at death's door because "No freegrazer's gonna take the food out my cattle's mouths!"
Riding into Gambon's town mainly to find a doctor, brooding, undemonstrative Charley Waite (Costner) and good-natured but now implacable Boss Spearman (Duvall) find both hostility and friendship, but very little help -- except from the doctor (Dean McDermott) and his spinster-by-choice sister Sue (Annette Bening), who take in the cowboys even as their presence puts lives at risk and the tiny town on edge.
Even the picture's more obvious plot developments, like the long-dormant desires stirred up in between Charley and Sue, are rife with understated emotional complexity in this adaptation of Lauran Paine's novel "The Open Range Men." However, the film's deepest feelings come from the bridled fury -- played to perfection by Duvall and Costner -- that slowly overcomes the freegrazers as they begin to realize they and their herd wouldn't be allowed to leave in peace even if they wanted to.
Almost apologetically yet without compunction, Boss all but declares his intent to kill the rancher and his men to just about anyone who will listen -- including the town's bought-and-paid-for sheriff (James Russo) who stares them down, hand on his holstered six-shooter, in one of the town's small saloons the night they arrive. Duvall gives a brilliant performance as an aging life-long plains-drifting cowpoke and a gracious man pushed to his limit and willfully, purposely stepping over the line into his baser emotions.
Costner is also strong and quietly commanding in portraying Charley's inner turmoil as his tenderness toward Sue clashes with violent tendencies he thought he'd buried long ago but threaten to boil back to the surface of his psyche. "I don't have a problem with killin'. Never have," he says as impassively as possible as he tells Boss of being in a specially trained Civil War unit sent behind Confederate lines to "cause trouble wherever we could."
"Before long," he adds with steely shame, "we was killin' men who weren't even in uniform."
As the film moseys toward an inevitable showdown, the second act sags just a little under the weight of some character-building shorthand (two affectionate dogs come in handy for showing the characters' soft sides). But none of it feels disingenuous and nothing breaks the increasing tension, especially once Charley and Boss start laying the groundwork for the coming melee.
A stunningly cold-blooded, no-turning-back preemptive strike kicks off what may be the most formidable, fierce and gripping gunfight in a Western in 30 years. Ranging all over the half-empty town (many citizens have already fled for the church or a nearby hill) the uneven fray -- 20 henchmen vs. two well-prepared heroes -- is not sexy or stylish. It's dirty, angry, brutal and unchoregraphed, and Costner's skill and patience as a director pay off in the scene's raw, potent realism.
Yet this staggering climax wouldn't have the power it does without Duvall's and Costner's devoted immersion in their characters. They so fully expect to die in defending not just their lives and livelihood but their entire lifestyle (against someone who may be ruthless but is ultimately doing the same) that on the morning of the battle they spend all their money at the general store buying Swiss chocolate, Cuban cigars and a set of China (for Sue), all luxury items they'd never have known as cattle-drivers.
Despite being friends for years, these two characters bond as men more on this day, in a hail of bullets, than they would have in a lifetime under any other circumstance -- and the seemingly effortless way the performances instill that notion, almost without words, speaks volumes about the actors' talents.
Daringly adult counter-programming for a summer release and handicapped by horrible commercials and trailers, if "Open Range" doesn't find an audience, it would be a shame because Westerns this good come along very rarely.