Previous Entry: The Wild Bunch
Connection: genre (western)
Open Range (2003)
Directed by Kevin Costner
Written by Craig Storper
Starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, and Abraham Benrubi
139 minutes, Rated R
All right. This blog has been going long enough that I think it’s time we have a serious conversation about Kevin Costner. You’ll have to be patient with me, though, because I find him incredibly difficult to talk about. My feelings on him are, to say the least . . . conflicted.
I don’t like him. Which is not a true statement, because I really like him quite a bit. But I don’t think he’s very good. As in, not a very good actor.
However, as I mapped out the trajectory of the labyrinth, plotted the course of what movies I would be writing about (and in what order I would be writing about them in), I discovered that I kept coming back to his films. If a stranger were to stumble upon my hand-written notes, they might easily believe that I am actually a big fan of Kevin Costner. They might laugh at how easily I could devote an entire section of this blog to discussion about how much I like his work.
That’s the thing: I like his work. I like his movies. I can list many of his films as “favorites”. Perusing his catalog of cinematic appearances, I only see one movie that I absolutely didn’t like (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice— don’t get me started). I don’t see any movies, in fact, that I wasn’t excited about seeing when I first heard about them. The man makes good movies. And he, more importantly, makes movies that I want to see.
Why the disdain?
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. That’s why.
I saw it on the opening weekend at the drive-in in my hometown of Gibson City, Illinois. I was a fan of the film, and I probably saw it six times during the summer of 1991. I saw it at the drive-in at least twice. I remember seeing it in Antioch during my, at the time, annual summer trip with my best friend, Paul. I recall taking my sister to see it in the theater for her birthday. My mother and I saw it, just for shits and giggles, at our local second-run dollar cinema. You don’t intentionally watch a movie so many times if you don’t like the movie, so it should be clear that I rather enjoyed it.
I was somewhat pre-disposed to like this movie before it even came out. The adventures of Robin Hood and his band of merry men, their exploits in Sherwood Forest, had been a favorite story of mine for about as long as I had been able to read. I had a condensed version for children that I had devoured long before I graduated to a battered paperback of the legitimate original novel by Howard Pyle. I lived and died by an intense belief that Robin Hood was second only to Peter Pan as being the single greatest animated film in the entire Walt Disney canon. Needless to say, I spent the spring of 1991 chomping at the bit for the live-action version of my favorite story . . . and Kevin Costner didn’t even have the decency to affect an English accent in order to play the role.
It was galling.
I disliked him on general principle just for that.
My dislike did not stop me, however, from seeing and enjoying his movies. He had many films over the next several years that I anxiously anticipated. Wyatt Earp, for example. Or A Perfect World. Yes, even Waterworld. I had to concede the number of films he had already done that I loved– The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Dances With Wolves– and had watched multiple times, even if I wasn’t completely thrilled with his stilted performances in them. I had to resign myself to what seemed to be a conflicted admission: I am a fan of Kevin Costner films, but not a fan of Kevin Costner.
It’s an odd relationship. And not one that I think I have ever had as a moviegoer with any other actor before or since. I cannot, right now, come up with one single actor or actress whose movies I eagerly anticipate even when I don’t think said actor or actress is any good. Usually, I avoid the work of performers that I don’t think are any good. At the very least, I pick and choose from their work sparingly and see only the films that are highly recommended for whatever reason.
What makes Kevin Costner so special in this regard?
I have no idea, and Karen, one of my cohorts at Three Nerds & A Movie has no idea either. She touched on this very question in the first-ever article she submitted to the site. This article stands to this day as one of my favorite pieces from her. It resonates with me strongly. Because I get it. Because I feel her pain. Because I hate myself a little for wasting so much time re-watching and re-watching and re-watching the work of an actor that I almost never believe. There’s still a good dozen Jeff Bridges movies I’ve never seen, so why am I watching JFK again?
Or Tin Cup.
Or For Love of the Game.
Or Open Range.
At long last, we get to the movie that is the reason I wrote this article. Despite the presence of Kevin Costner (and he is definitely not good in this film– he’s too gaunt and dry to make me believe that he has ever been psychotically violent at the drop of a hat), I have watched this movie at least 25 times. It’s one of the best westerns, in my opinion, of the last two decades. And I know westerns. I watch a lot of them.
Open Range is, however, directed by Kevin Costner, and what he lacks in thespian aplomb he certainly makes up for in directorial integrity. This is a man who won an Academy Award for directing ten years prior to making this movie. An Oscar. They don’t just, you know, hand those out. You have to earn an Oscar.
Yes, I am conceding that Kevin Costner is a damn fine director. With that in mind, I could argue, perhaps, that a good directorial decision on Mr. Costner’s part would have been to offer his role to a better actor, but I’m not sure, in his shoes, that I would have turned down the opportunity to perform opposite Robert Duvall either. Has America produced a better actor than Robert Duvall? My answer is “no”.
It’s neither here nor there, I guess. The damage is done. No film is perfect, but Open Range comes pretty close. Its only flaws, in my opinion, are a somewhat stiff performance from Costner and a romantic subplot that seems completely tacked on. These are minor complaints, though, and barely worth mentioning as neither one affects my enjoyment of the narrative. This film is otherwise superb. It’s well-written, well-executed, and well worth the time.
The plot of Open Range is quite simple: two cattlemen (played by Duvall and Costner) let their cattle graze freely too close to a town run by a corrupt businessman (played by Michael Gambon). He tells them to back off. They refuse. He retaliates. So do they. Gunfights ensue. There’s a potential romance between Costner’s character and the sister of the town doctor (played by Annette Bening). There’s a torrential rainstorm, a sadistic marshal (played by James Russo), and an ornery livery proprietor (played by Michael Jeter) who lends a much-needed shotgun in the final battle. There’s also a lot of blood. Most of the movie takes place in the span of one day.
The simplicity of the plot lends itself well to making this movie have appeal to audiences who don’t normally watch and enjoy westerns. This same film could be done in the present day, categorized as a crime thriller, and still be just as compelling. It is true, that a clever screenwriter would have to come up with an alternate means of employment for the two protagonists, Percy would maybe run an auto body shop instead of a livery, and, since most buildings in this day and age have better foundations to protect themselves from torrential floods, that part of the story would (unfortunately) have to be reworked. But the only reason this movie HAS TO BE set in 1882 is so that Kevin Costner can add another western to his lengthy filmography. God bless Mr. Costner for doing it anyway, potential for box office failure be damned.
It’s sad to me that the western genre has had such a decline. There was a day and age when the Hollywood machine cranked out more westerns a year than could feasibly be watched by more than one person in their lifetime. Nowadays, a vast majority of the westerns that are produced are released straight-to video. Hollywood seems to believe that the audience for this genre is gone. I’m having a hard time coming up with a mass-released major studio western that was released in theaters since There Will Be Blood, and I don’t think that movie qualifies as a western in any way other than the era it is set in. We used to get dozens a month, and now we get one or two a year.
Myself, I love westerns. It may be my favorite genre. I adore the notion that men once eked a technology-free living from the environment. I love that the heroes in westerns typically live by a strict code of honor, and, just as typically, walk the line between being a hero who does bad things and being a villain who does good things. I am an ardent admirer of the desolate landscapes and wind-blown prairies, scenery that isn’t distracted by other scenery. And, oddly, I like that that they don’t make many westerns anymore. Finding a new western to enjoy is, in many ways, like visiting a museum full of exhibits about the way we used to live. The exhibits have prototype tools and toys, a right-before-your-eyes evolution of the industrialization of life as we once knew it. Only not many people ever visit this museum, so it’s like having a relaxing spot all to yourself.
Yes, I love westerns, and, despite my feelings about the wooden delivery in his acting, if Kevin Costner keeps making them, I will keep watching them. Even if they aren’t nearly as good as Open Range.