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Range rovers

Culture

Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003

August is a month for counter-programming, as studios often dump off their duds as the blockbuster season winds down. But the thinning release schedule also opens the door for more serious films aimed at a smaller audience segment, crowded out from May to July by sequels and action movies. Open Range and Dirty Pretty Things (see right) stand out as two of the more interesting of these August offerings.

The most striking example of counter-programming is Kevin Costner's new Western, Open Range (rated R for violence). Open Range is a studio film that is resolutely, refreshingly old-fashioned. Not many Westerns make it to theaters these days, and when they do they're either revisionist, anachronistic, or both. Thankfully, it's clear that Westerns of the '50s and '60s, the heyday of the genre, have heavily influenced Mr. Costner, who directs and stars in the film.

Mr. Costner plays Charley, a free-graze cattleman and former gunslinger who has worked for Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) for the past 10 years. Like many Western heroes, Charley and Boss are part of a dying breed, because Ranchers who own property with borders don't take kindly to the free grazers allowing their cattle to live off the land. One rancher in particular, an Irishman who controls the local town, issues an ultimatum to Boss and his crew: Get the herd out of the area or risk losing it-and perhaps their own lives.

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Boss and Charley are not the type of men (and these are men) who respond well to threats. When some of the rancher's men attack Boss's camp, killing one cowboy and wounding another, the course is set. Boss and Charley head into town looking for justice, willing to risk their lives for what they believe to be right. "There's something that eats at a man worse than dying," Mr. Costner's character explains to the fearful townsfolk.

The open-range scenery is gorgeous, the characters well-drawn, the acting first-rate (especially by Mr. Duvall), but the film is not perfect. For one thing, Boss and Charley sure do a lot of talking for a couple of weathered cowboys. They're both of the strong, silent type, yet there's not much silence between them. Mr. Costner and Mr. Duvall are given some great lines (one scene beautifully lays out the difference between justice and vengeance), but their emotionally vulnerable moments come too quickly and too often. The film also struggles in its final minutes, tying up loose ends after the violent, climactic shootout so quickly as to be nearly incoherent. But, flaws and all, the film is a welcome stranger in town.

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