All the Pretty Horses

There have been few as eagerly (and nervously) awaited adaptations in recent years as that of Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy’s 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. It’s 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 that’s seeing the light of day. What’s left on the screen suggests that Thornton’s cut may not have been any great shakes either, but anything would be better than what we’ve got now: a Boy’s Life adventure that hiccups from episode to episode, with most of McCarthy’s elegiac mysticism drained in the bloodletting. It’s 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 mother’s decision to sell the family’s cattle ranch, with its deep emotional roots. Rather than remain on a land that’s “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 Mexico’s largest ranches. Cole heedlessly enters into an idyllic love affair with the hacendado’s beautiful daughter (Penelope Cruz), and when he ignores the family’s 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 Cole’s intense rite of passage.

McCarthy’s 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 Cole’s 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 Cole’s journey is all but forgotten once we’re on the road, and in any case, it’s hard to see what’s 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 novel’s subtext to mystify anyone who hasn’t read it. For McCarthy’s Cole, horses have a nearly religious significance—he 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 Cole’s dreams. When Cole and Rawlins note the fineness of Blevins’ steed, Thornton barely provides us with a glimpse of it; at the same time, Cole’s horse, which we care deeply about in the book, doesn’t even have a name in the movie. Thornton seems to think we only need some of the pretty horses.

Ted Tally’s screenplay follows the outlines of McCarthy’s book with such fidelity that it’s 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 McCarthy’s world. A murder that’s wrenching in the book because the victim doesn’t comprehend his peril until it’s too late becomes an exercise in bombast in Thornton’s hands—we’re clobbered with the character’s slow-motion torments. The movie’s world isn’t 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 score—a predictably tender Spanish guitar for the love scenes, boisterous Marlboro Man music for the outdoor scenes.

Regardless of who’s 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 they’ve made a real point. The herky-jerky transitions make the story’s events feel arbitrary, while important sequences, such as the boys’ stay in prison, are so rhythmless and unformed that we don’t feel like we fully understand who’s doing what to whom, or why.

The movie was obviously a labor of love for Thornton and his actors, and they’ve done some important things right. They’ve nailed the postures and attitudes of these hard-scrabble men, and they’ve figured out how to make McCarthy’s raw-boned dialogue (“I got no reason to be afraid of God. I’ve even got a bone or two to pick with him”) sound natural when spoken aloud. Fortunately, one of the film’s 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.

It’s a testament to Matt Damon’s 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 Cole’s inner hardness, and he’s 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 doesn’t breathe a whisper of personality into Alejandra, but McCarthy and Tally haven’t given her a character to play. The movie’s 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 didn’t threaten to destroy everything it touches.

Billy Bob Thornton was barely capable of bringing off even the shoebox drama Sling Blade, and he’s clearly bitten off more than he can chew in All the Pretty Horses. The nuances of McCarthy’s 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 don’t even flinch in our seats for him. That’s what’s missing from this version of McCarthy’s tale: the flinching.

– Tom Block