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There have been few as eagerly (and
nervously) awaited adaptations in recent years as that of Cormac McCarthys 1992
novel All the Pretty Horses. McCarthys
tactile, intensely visual prose always seems ready to erupt into cinema inside the mind;
the master of the imaginary landscape, his tales are filled with incidents that are comic,
psychedelic, or just plain harrowing. Its only too bad that the first film taken
from one of his books has become entangled in a dispute between director Billy Bob
Thornton, who delivered a three-hour cut of the film, and the studio, which is responsible
for the 112-minute version thats seeing the light of day. Whats left on the
screen suggests that Thorntons cut may not have been any great shakes either, but
anything would be better than what weve got now: a Boys Life adventure that
hiccups from episode to episode, with most of McCarthys elegiac mysticism drained in
the bloodletting. Its too well-meaning to be a disgrace, but it is a failure.
In 1949 San Angelo, Texas, young John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) is mourning the death of his grandfather and his estranged mothers decision to sell the familys cattle ranch, with its deep emotional roots. Rather than remain on a land thats fenced in and sold off and played out, Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) set off on horseback for Mexico, where the ways of the vaquero still thrive. During their idyllic passage they encounter 13-year old Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), a pistol-packing runaway riding an obviously stolen mount. After barely surviving one scrape brought on by Blevins impetuosity, Cole and Rawlins cut him loose and take jobs as cowhands on one of Mexicos largest ranches. Cole heedlessly enters into an idyllic love affair with the hacendados beautiful daughter (Penelope Cruz), and when he ignores the familys demand that he give her up, he and Rawlins are arrested and implicated in a murder committed by the young Blevins. The forbidden romance, a hellhole of a prison, and a final desperate push back to the border are all steps in John Grady Coles intense rite of passage.
McCarthys tale is an idealized tragedy; its background music is the first death rattle of a land whose arteries will soon be choked with oil wells, conglomerated commercial interests, and Burger Kings. John Grady Coles adherence to bygone values fix him as a man out of time, and he chooses his lonesome path to avoid the degradation that we saw inflicted on his contemporaries in The Last Picture Show. But in the movie this true purpose of Coles journey is all but forgotten once were on the road, and in any case, its hard to see whats so played out about the land: the terrain that the boys pass through on their way to the border is a paradise unblemished by a single strand of barbed-wire.
The film retains just enough of the novels subtext to mystify anyone who hasnt read it. For McCarthys Cole, horses have a nearly religious significancehe communicates on an almost telepathic level with these emissaries from the old way of life. Nearly all of this is gone from the film, leaving newcomers clueless as to why artily-photographed mustangs are galloping through Coles dreams. When Cole and Rawlins note the fineness of Blevins steed, Thornton barely provides us with a glimpse of it; at the same time, Coles horse, which we care deeply about in the book, doesnt even have a name in the movie. Thornton seems to think we only need some of the pretty horses.
Ted Tallys screenplay follows the outlines of McCarthys book with such fidelity that its impossible not to notice how often Thornton fails to do justice to its events. He seems unsure as to how to photograph the landscapes his heroes pass through, so his camera vacillates between highly processed shots and tasteful National Geographic-type views of the mesas and rivers, with neither style conveying the lushness or feverishness of McCarthys world. A murder thats wrenching in the book because the victim doesnt comprehend his peril until its too late becomes an exercise in bombast in Thorntons handswere clobbered with the characters slow-motion torments. The movies world isnt fully imagined: locations that we ought to be able to smell (a pulqueria, a dance hall, a bunkhouse, a prison cafeteria) are nondescript and populated by baffling inhabitants (an old man who applauds Cole for making a phone call, a band of murderous convicts placidly singing Red River Valley). And virtually every second of the movie is smothered under the gravy-like scorea predictably tender Spanish guitar for the love scenes, boisterous Marlboro Man music for the outdoor scenes.
Regardless of whos responsible for the final cut, the fact remains that All the Pretty Horses looks as if the stone-dumb Blevins put it together with a pair of tin-snips and some duct tape. Stripped to the bare bones of its action, it pole-vaults between plot-points with TV-style expediency. Necessary transitional and establishing shots are missing; scenes are picked up willy-nilly in their middle, or end before theyve made a real point. The herky-jerky transitions make the storys events feel arbitrary, while important sequences, such as the boys stay in prison, are so rhythmless and unformed that we dont feel like we fully understand whos doing what to whom, or why.
The movie was obviously a labor of love for Thornton and his actors, and theyve done some important things right. Theyve nailed the postures and attitudes of these hard-scrabble men, and theyve figured out how to make McCarthys raw-boned dialogue (I got no reason to be afraid of God. Ive even got a bone or two to pick with him) sound natural when spoken aloud. Fortunately, one of the films best sequences is also one of its longest ones: the ride through Mexico, as the two bemused saddle-tramps are entertained (and put on their guard) by Blevins heated musings.
Its a testament to Matt Damons skill that within a couple of years he can bring out so many shades in the gnawed-at chameleon Tom Ripley and make the superhumanly stoic John Grady Cole seem like someone that might actually walk this earth. His angular cheekbones and tight jawline help him express Coles inner hardness, and hes at his most convincing when he needs to be, in the scenes where Cole shows off his authority on the subject he knows best: horses. Henry Thomas starts out strong as Rawlins, but his performance seems to evaporate as the movie goes on. Cruz doesnt breathe a whisper of personality into Alejandra, but McCarthy and Tally havent given her a character to play. The movies acting honors go to Lucas Black, who played the kid in Sling Blade. As the volatile nut-case Blevins, Black speaks in a scratchy drawl and wears a cowboy hat so big it threatens to fall down over his shoulders. His Blevins is a sun-bronzed, apple-cheeked sociopath whose idiocy would be hilarious if it didnt threaten to destroy everything it touches.
Billy Bob Thornton was barely capable of bringing off even the shoebox drama Sling Blade, and hes clearly bitten off more than he can chew in All the Pretty Horses. The nuances of McCarthys work have eluded him, leaving us with a series of emotionally stillborn incidents. When John Grady Cole uses a red-hot pistol barrel to cauterize a gunshot wound in his leg, the incident is so patently unreal that we dont even flinch in our seats for him. Thats whats missing from this version of McCarthys tale: the flinching.
- Tom Block