A recurring theme in Westerns has been the lawlessness of the frontier as competing interests tried to gain control of natural resources up for grabs in newly developing territories. Federal law enforcement was stretched thin, so towns were dependent on local sheriffs or marshals, presuming there was one, and, if so, presuming his honesty, competence, and ability to control the unleashed ambitions of the unscrupulous types as much attracted to the potential wealth of the West as the honest and right-thinking pioneers. The inability to rely on authority to enforce the law left individuals needing to take the law into their own hands.
Classic films like The Big Country (competition for watering rights), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (law vs. cattle thieves), and Shane (homesteaders vs. cattlemen) found their dramatic momentum in such conflicts, as does Kevin Costner’s new opus, Open Range, which pits grazers (cattlemen who rootlessly grazed their cattle in an area and then moved on) against ranchers staking claims to grazing lands. "Boss" Spearman (Robert Duvall) is grazing his herd with the assistance of Charley Waite (Costner), a Civil War veteran who learned to kill in the war and made a living at it afterwards, a history that troubles him and which he is trying to put behind him.
The rancher is Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), an Irish immigrant who is adamantly opposed to the freegrazers and will go to any length to drive them off. He also has the town marshal (James Russo) in his pocket as well as a thuggish group of henchmen. A showdown between the two sides, a shootout in town, is the inevitable climax of the conflict. Wanna guess who wins?
There’s little more to the plot than that: basic economic conflict established, then resolved by force. What Craig Storper’s screenplay (based on a novel by Lauran Paine) tries to do, during an overextended two hours and twenty minutes, is to flesh out the characters, giving them backstories which explain why Spearman and Waite are the way they are. It also establishes their fundamentally principled behavior–which doesn’t prevent them from shooting men point blank without a moment’s hesitation.
Add in a romantic subplot (Waite falls for the local doctor’s sister), some standard Big Sky western scenery, and a cute dog (or two), and the package is being hailed as Costner’s redemption as a director after the torpid The Postman and the unmitigated disaster called Waterworld. Redemption ought not to come quite so easily; Open Range, while surely an improvement over its predecessors, is a decidedly mixed bag.
The main asset of the film is Robert Duvall who turns Spearman into a three-dimensional character of some interest. But Costner, the actor, performs a real disservice to Costner, the director. The role is supposed to be one of a not-too-articulate cowboy, but the lines that Costner does deliver are so stiff and of such a sameness over the entire length of the film that the character emerges flat. Annette Bening does wonders with the stock role of the Western woman waiting for the right man to come along; with a look in her eye or a twist in the corner of her mouth, she can lend meanings to lines that even the writer didn’t know were there. But there’s no onscreen chemistry whatever between Benning and Costner and the script provides little other substantiation for their romance.
Those are the only three characters developed at all. Little is learned of the bad guys except that they are unremittingly, 100% bad. How much more powerful the drama would have been if Baxter had been fleshed out as a real person and given even a touch of humanity and motivation besides greed and orneriness. Instead of a thoughtful, layered film with moral subtleties, Costner delivers black-and-white simplifications — the unequivocally right, justified in doing whatever they want against the demonized wrong. It’s a film for the George W. Bush era.