Thursday, February 19, 2009

DVD: Open Range

Director: Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Benning
Year made: 2003

As a genre, the western is nearly as forgotten as the time it depicts; yet its influence is enduring. Even Eastwood’s dark ‘revisionist’ western Unforgiven couldn’t help but play up to the romantic notion of the lone anti-hero gunslinger...
Kevin Costner’s Open Range finds its feet in this cinematic tradition. Many moviegoers and critics alike are quick to make their assumptions of Costner. Films like Waterworld and The Postman left his reputation badly damaged and box-office standing in tatters. But despite his tendency to be overindulgent, Costner is still a fine filmmaker whose star pedigree ranks right up there with the best, and if there is one genre he knows, it’s the western. Open Range does much to redress the balance.

Free-grazers are cattlemen with no ranch, simply drifting through the Open Range plains with their herd at a time when barbed-wire fences did not exist and no man had a claim on the land. Times are changing though, and old school Boss (Robert Duvall) and his right-hand man Charley (Costner) find themselves in a deadly conflict with Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), a local rancher with the law in his pocket.

The film takes its beats from High Noon, building slowly to a final shootout, introducing us to the town’s characters along the way and exploring the moralistic issues involved in Boss and Charley’s plight. Duvall does not play the cowboy of old, he embraces and absorbs him. His character is the centrepiece of Open Range.

Costner’s gunhand with a dubious past is intriguing, and subtly performed with glances and body language rather than words. When he does speak it’s short and to the point: “Men are gonna get killed here today, Sue, and I’m gonna kill them.” Of the film’s flaws the most obvious is the romantic subplot between Charley and Sue (Annette Bening). It is an unnecessary addition to the story and doesn’t feel natural, despite being acted well.

If the film alone isn’t enought, this two-disc DVD is more than worthy of your pennies. Costner’s commentary is a fine example of a single-person chattrack. With no introduction he immediately delves into a discussion about the landscapes, so important to the genre, and expands into a detailed explanation of his quest for authenticity, happily justifying his various decisions and admitting his mistakes.

Well above par are the director’s journal featurettes in ‘Beyond Open Range’. There are eight segments, totalling 65 minutes. ‘Beginnings’ offers a bright introduction as Costner talks openly about his anger at being messed about by a particular moneyman. The featurettes reveal many of the trials and tribulations everyone (especially Costner) went through getting the film made, finding locations and the fact the director’s appendix started leaking halfway into the shoot, leading to him having it removed during post-production.

‘America’s Open Range’ lowers the standard somewhat. It is a dryly narrated historical look at frontier history – the kind of documentary that would have sent you to sleep during your history lessons at school. Rounding things up are 12 decent deleted scenes with optional introductions by Costner and a nice featurette ‘Storyboarding: Open Range’, which draws comparisons between David Negron’s artwork and the actual shots used in the movie.

As for the film’s climactic showdown, well, it is a technically brilliant, well-crafted sequence deserving of being considered right up there with the best. If you thought Tombstone’s shootout was good, just wait till the guns start blazing in Open Range.

Ultimately this is an impressive if flawed effort from the Costner.

Special features:
• Audio commentary by director/star Costner
• ‘America’s Open Range’ featurette (13 mins)
• ‘Beyond Open Range’ 8 director’s journal featurettes: ‘Beginnings’ (3 mins), ‘Preproduction Challenges’ (11 mins), ‘On Location’ (9 mins), ‘First Day!’ (5 mins), ‘Weathering The Elements’ (16 mins), ‘Wardrobe And Stars’ (5 mins), ‘The Realism Of A Gunfight’ (7 mins), ‘A Film Is Finished’ (9 mins)
• ‘Storyboarding: Open Range’ featurette (7 mins)
• 12 Deleted scenes with an optional director introduction
• Music video montage

If you like this why not try…
Unforgiven: Special Edition
A timeless revision of the western by its greatest custodian.

Open Range trailer:

This review first appeared in DVD Review issue #62