A strange thing happened in the '60s: a succession of brilliant Westerns gunned down the genre. Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were the twin shooters, the former choosing the weapons of arch stylisation, the latter wielding Encroaching Technology and guns. Lots of guns. That left messy exit wounds...
Battered and bloodied, it was down to a brave few to sift through the pulpy pieces - - most notably Clint Eastwood, who toyed with the supernatural (High Plains Drifter), revisionism (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and even a hint of feminism (Unforgiven) to revive the oat-opera. Trouble being, the resuscitations were too fleeting - - and far too sporadic - - to allow for a full-blown resurrection.
Open Range is Kevin Costner's second attempt at playing re-animator, coming 14 years after the Oscar-snaffling Dances With Wolves reworked A Man Called Horse on an epic scale. Like Wolves, it trots along at a leisurely pace, at times too leisurely, clip-clopping over familiar territory but doing so with care and affection. Also like Wolves, it features a romantic subplot that acts as a diversion from sweaty men perched on smelly steeds, Costner's cowpoke earnestly falling for Annette Bening's straight-talking Sue. It's sweetly played but something of an appendage given the atmosphere of impending doom.
No, the real relationship here is that between Costner's troubled Civil War veteran and his composed, contented mentor Boss Spearman (a terrific Robert Duvall). Cattle-herding buddies for 10 years, they plod along comfortably, each finding satisfaction in the routines of their work. No yip-yapping around the campfire for these guys - just a few well-chosen words and plenty of silence, all the better to stare at the stars and tacitly mull over past inglories.
Then everything changes, the pair being pulled inexorably towards the two things they shun - civilisation and violence - when they encounter a small town located within the steel fist of Irish rancher Michael Gambon. Suddenly they can no longer run from all they've been running from. Suddenly Charley and Spearman are forced to talk to each other, really talk. And suddenly the cogs of their power dynamic grind through 180 degrees, Charley's wartime experiences now making him boss as a shoot-out threatens like gathering storm clouds.
And what a shoot-out, Costner's sedate, painstakingly naturalistic, squarely traditional Western striding into town to deliver a masterclass in cacophony and choreography. Reactionary it may be, our `pacifist' heroes finally resorting to violence to resolve their problems. But at least their guns aren't loaded with bullets forged in Hollywood: the good guys miss as much as the bad guys, and the bad guys aim as true as the good guys. Black hat or white, there's no telling who'll be left standing once the final report has done echoing through the muddy, bloody streets.
Too long but admirably sincere, Costner's horse opera is a trad offering that recalls the likes of High Noon. Explosive climax, too.