Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Long after the genre’s heyday, Kevin Costner brought the Western back to the summer movie season

The director-star’s Open Range is a charming callback to oaters of old

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Screenshot: Open Range

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Against all odds, the event-movie movie season is in full swing, so it’s time once again to look back on unsung summer blockbusters—the flops, the critical bombs, or the merely forgotten Hollywood spectacles that deserve to be rescued from the trash bin of movie history.

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Open Range (2003)

Just what is it with Kevin Costner and Westerns? The man has spent a huge chunk of his filmography appearing in them, from his breakthrough performance in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado to his directorial debut with Dances With Wolves (a.k.a. the movie that stole Goodfellas’ Best Picture Oscar) to small-screen productions like the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries and the TV series Yellowstone. Costner’s most recent work from behind the camera belongs to the genre, too. After the dismal success of his expensive post-apocalyptic neo-Western The Postman (which he also directed), he went small, securing just $22 million to adapt Lauran Paine’s The Open Range Men. But even with a modest budget, Costner (working once more with cinematographer J. Michael Muro, who ran Steadicam on Wolves) managed to get his John Ford on, capturing mountains, hillsides, and other vistas with breathtaking awe.

This time around, Costner isn’t the main star; he shares top billing with shit-kicking screen icon Robert Duvall. Costner and Duvall are, respectively, Charley and Boss, open-range cattlemen rustling their herd through the countryside. Their peaceful journey gets interrupted when one of their cowhands is roughed up and detained at a nearby town run by an Irish land baron (a seething Michael Gambon) who can’t stand free grazers. Of course, the baron has the town marshal (James Russo) in his back pocket. Costner and Duvall’s cowboys soon go on the warpath after the baron sends riders to attack their campsite, leaving one cowhand dead and another severely injured.

Range is the sort of old-school Western only Costner seems interested in making anymore. Its tale of vengeful but altruistic gunslingers going up against your standard-issue powerful baddie—who also has an entire town of scared, decent folk under his thumb—resembles the traditional oaters Ford, Henry Hathaway, and Budd Boetticher specialized in. This being a post-Unforgiven Western, there is some genre revisionism, too, with Charley revealed to be a Civil War vet/ex-hired killer still haunted by his years of bloodshed. But the film more closely resembles early 20th-century Westerns in its downright disarming lack of cynicism. Costner and screenwriter Craig Storper give us an old-fashioned story of right versus wrong, where the men with upstanding moral codes do battle with men who lost them a long time ago. And you know those latter gents will get their comeuppance in the climactic gunfight.

Perhaps the most satisfying death in the movie comes when Charley walks up to the sadistic goon (a pre-Sons Of Anarchy Kim Coates) who hurt his pals and pops him straight in the head. (The character only has a few minutes of screen time; Costner practically does the audience a favor by immediately rubbing him out before his shtick goes stale.) But it’s not all vengeance and violence. Costner gives us some moments of quiet affection between Charley and Sue (Annette Bening), the sister of the doctor the men go to for medical attention. Bening’s character is yet another Western archetype: the concerned, resourceful woman who makes a loner cowpoke think about settling down. This earnest, effective trip to the Old West was a small success in the summer of ’03, calling back to an era when blockbusters looked a little different than they do today. So long as there’s still an audience for Westerns, Costner seems happy to keep making them.

Availability: Open Range is available to rent or purchase digitally.

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