"Open Range" (Touchstone) 135 minutes, R
Directed by Kevin Costner.
Written by Craig Storper, based on the novel by Lauran Paine.
Kevin Costner: Charley Waite
Robert Duvall: Boss
Annette Bening: Sue
One measure of how far American popular culture has fallen may be taken by comparing this ponderous waste of talent with the great westerns—for example, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Shane," or "Ride the High Country." Kevin Costner and the exploited Robert Duvall ("Boss") sound like the cowboys caricatured by Garrison Keillor on his radio show. With "Open Range," Costner continues the decline of the western begun with his "Dances With Wolves". This embarrassment followed on Clint Eastwood's later films, such as "Pale Rider" and "Unforgiven." Philosophically, this can be stated as Rousseau replacing Aristotle: compassion and sensuality unhorse manliness.
It would be a mistake to deride serious study of popular culture, such as film, in favor of classical drama; Shakespeare—when properly performed—is of course incomparable. But in a democratic republic such as the United States, public opinion goes further than the law in shaping the American character. The movies have been a source of civic education as well as a reflection of the public's soul.
As virtually any western would, "Open Range" appears to promote certain virtues, including fatherhood, friendship, love of honor, defiance of tyrants, and respect for women. These pre-political men are a law unto themselves, before they decide to become respectable townsfolk. But unlike "The Magnificent Seven" or its model, "The Seven Samurai", "Open Range" presents these positive qualities as mere posturing, not as conviction; they are not ample compensation for the stilted dialogue and predictable plot. All this follows from the main characters' stated reasons for being out on the range: they wish to escape private demons. When confronted with the prospect of death, they indulge in chocolate and cigars.
The morality of "Open Range" is closer to that displayed by an open city, naked before its enemies. Consider the film's apparent disdain for the Civil War. At least from the perspective of Costner's character, Charley Waite, that great struggle for the soul of America is simply about killing. In "Dances With Wolves," the Civil War was the occasion for a comic episode. There are other problems. The film focuses on dogs and their fate. The sub-human apparently tells us the most about the human; no wonder the townspeople behave like the pets of their human masters. Boss curses God. The town's church is pointedly on its outskirts, not at its center.
The best westerns contain elements of moral ambiguity whose resolution teaches us about justice and honor. After all, pre-political men inflict risks on those they visit. In this regard, "Open Range" fares badly compared to, say, Eastwood's western homage to "Yojimbo," "High Plains Drifter." Though the townspeople finally exercise their natural right to liberty, it is a woman who is the most manly of them. But there is no tension in "Open Range"—men switch roles and visions bye the bye. One clichÃ© follows upon another.
An increasingly lawless culture, one lacking moral as well as legal norms, cannot produce worthy westerns. The hero of the western reflects the need for higher men to help found the political community. John Wayne, let alone "Coriolanus," will not be understood by a culture that places last men ahead of real men. When I taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I used John Wayne's "Liberty Valance" to explicate Aristotle's Politics. Several students in each class—future officers and defenders of this nation—had never seen a John Wayne movie. That is the cultural situation we face. Recent westerns (only "Tombstone" comes to mind as a possible exception) will not fill this void. For all its pretensions, "Open Range" only resembles a western.