Thursday, September 18, 2014

In short: Open Range (2003)

There’s always a risk with a film as deeply informed by the traditions of the genre it is working in as Kevin Costner’s Open Range is it will become a mere nostalgia fest. And indeed, the film is full of dozens of little nods to classic (and not so classic) Westerns but these nods aren’t there as the film’s only reason for being, but rather as a way to position the film in the history of its genre.

There is, too, actual nostalgia in the film, yet it’s one broken by a script honest enough to know that the real places and times we are nostalgic for never were what our dreams – and particularly the shared dreams of cinema – pretend they were. So, for every moment of sheer beauty, of the wry smile about a simpler past, there’s knowledge about violence and its cost – and how big in a place and time where violence was omnipresent that cost is – as well as the understanding that the simpler past always was as complicated as the present, if probably complicated in different ways.

Another huge achievement of the film is its ability to tell a story that is actually very small scale and personal, meaning the world to just the people of one little town and four herders riding through it, in a grand and sweeping tone without losing its human core. The way Open Range treats them, historically small lives mean the world.

From time to time, Costner with his director’s hat on may go for a bit too much Hollywood pathos here, yet the film also finds more than enough room for treating middle-age love story between Costner’s Charley and Annette Bening’s Sue Barlow with a more truthful kind of tenderness, and contains many a moment that prefers honesty to pathos.

While handling all this rather beautifully for the most part, Open Range also likes to reverse, perhaps even subvert, all kinds of little genre expectations; this is the kind of film where the big climactic showdown takes place after the big storm, and where the part of the central shoot-out that had an emphatic build-up is finished the fastest. Speaking of the climactic showdown, it’s long, and complex, and interesting, again slightly subverting genre expectations, and putting the emphasis on the chaos of large scale violence, particularly in a time and place where everyone and his mother owned a gun, which still made most of them amateurs and chaotic actors in a situation that could only be ordered and controlled to a small degree anyhow.

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