Most contemporary Hollywood films are high on action and low on dialogue. Open Range — the latest entry in the western genre — shifts the balance in the opposite direction, at least until its culmination, a lengthy and ferocious shootout that does for the western what the opening of Saving Private Ryan did for the war movie. The problem with Open Range is that there far too much talk, not enough silence. It is the most-garrulous western since Blazing Saddles, yet it lacks the humor of that film or even of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Perhaps Open Range should be seen as the next step for the western genre beyond Unforgiven, a film that probes the depths of the guilt of a murderous cowboy, of the way past wrongdoing haunts a man in the present. Open Range reinvents the western as an encounter group for cowboys who crave intimacy. The film features Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) as “free-rangers,” who wander open lands with cattle and who come into conflict with the corrupt sheriff of a nearby town. As the conflict escalates, one of Boss and Charlie’s workers is seriously wounded and another killed, as is Charlie’s dog.
At 138 minutes, the film is a bit long and, aside from an occasional skirmish, it moves at a leisurely pace. The pace, which is by turns charming and irritating, and understated tone in no way prepare the viewer for the explosive violence at the end; the final battle comes as a dramatic jolt.
Before we reach that gunfight, Open Range culls and comments on nearly all the great themes of the western genre, especially the slippery slope of justice, what it is, who enforces it, and whether it can be distinguished from raw vengeance. For all its Hobbesian themes, the western is not about the fear of violent death as the greatest of evils. As Charlie puts it, “there are things that gnaw on a man worse than dying.” The film wants to retain, while softening, the classic western’s sense of the nobility of sacrifice, of the willingness to risk one’s life in defense of oneself, one’s family, and one’s way of life. When Boss and Charlie enter the town to confront the sheriff, he quickly informs them that he has issued warrants for their arrests. They counter, “Our warrant is writ out by us and we mean to enforce it. Every man has got a right to protect his property and his life.” The film works its way toward a view of justice as distinct from vengeance, although that thesis is more subtly handled in a classic western such as Ride the High Country.
The detached stoicism of the classic western embodied a real ethic, an ethic based on certain suppositions: that neither the natural world nor human beings are malleable to our wishes; that, where the rule of law is tenuous, naïveté about human promises and motives can have deadly costs; that attachment to others, while necessary and honorable, also renders one vulnerable; and that honor entails a certain degree of diffidence of self-expression and an unwillingness to pry into the lives of others.
Now, one often has the sense that the men in old westerns who wander the “open range” were amply aware of the deprivations of such a way of life. Yet, they felt no compulsion to ponder their losses or to speak too openly about them. Habitual diffidence rendered the traditional cowboy incapable of expressing intimacy in anything except a comic or laconic way. The main characters in Open Range start out in a circumspect mode, yet when they start talking, they do so as if they’ve been in therapy for some time. Boss and Charlie have been together for years yet Charlie has had no idea that Boss was once married. Tough guy, Charlie proclaims early on, “I got no problem with killing. Never have.” In fact, he is quite troubled by the lives he has taken. But his increasingly persistent need to confess his past becomes silly, as, for instance, when he inexplicably says to a female nurse who has spent much of the movie taping and sewing the wounds his gun has inflicted on townsfolk, “I’m not who you think I am.” An even odder note is struck when Boss and Charlie express more emotion over the death of a dog than over the death of one of their men.
Critics are proclaiming that this is Costner’s best performance. Personally, I prefer him in his baseball movies — Bull Durham and Field of Dreams — but that may just be because those are much better films than Open Range, a film that models the western, not on The Duke or Clint, but on the loquacity of an Oprah talk show.
— Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.