Sunday, February 15, 2004

Now Playing: Open Range

Produced and directed by Kevin Costner, sentimental slob.

I used to think movie reviews, being part of the culture and all, might take up some space on this site, until I regained my senses and remembered I hardly go to movies anymore, for the simple reason that, as a part of the culture, most of them are as awful as the rest of it. By the time I see them, nobody's paying attention. And since I know you aren't, I'll be brief.

If Kevin Costner is a sentimental sap, then my wife is the syrup refined from it. I catch her and the kids sucking up gup on the TV that sends me to my knees in another room, followed shortly by the sound of flushing. So when she looks over and says, "This is pretty bad," something's wrong. When at the end I say, "It had some good moments," and she replies, "That was awful!" -something's wrong. What's wrong is that Costner and his screenwriter don't know when to shut up, and they wouldn't know a sentimentality if they had it roped and hog-tied.

When a screenplay has the characters saying too much, or the wrong thing, it's a sign the writer and director are lacking in subtlety, or else assume that you and I are, which amounts to the same thing. They don't trust us to "get it," so they're going to make sure. After a good scene in which Kostner and Duvall confront the corrupt marshall and the despotic rancher who owns him, Duvall is required not two minutes later to explain to us what we just saw. He's sitting astride his horse atop a hill, looking out over the fertile prairie grasslands and the cattle grazing below. Costner comes riding up. "Beautiful country," says Duvall, "a man could get lost out here..." never heard that one before, have you? Then, finishing his sentence, "...and forget there's people and things ain't so simple as this." Yep, there's evil in the world, and Eden's all gone. Then he gives that explanation I mentioned.

Examples of flat and fallen dialogue are too numerous to recount. A few others:
A bad guy trying to give a sense of how badly his back hurts after being thrown against a stove by Duvall's lovable lug of a hired hand: "Feel like I been humped by a 300 pound whore." Yuk, yuk. Let's strain for authenticity, why don't we?
Kevin Costner: "I been places and done things I ain't proud of."
Kevin Costner: "I been aimin' to..."
K"""" C"""""" : "I been meanin' to.."
KC ------------: "I been learnin' that.."
Same guy: "I love you, Sue. Been thataway since I first laid eyes on you."

Beens, beens, they're good for your heart, the more you eat...

And the sentimentalities run around like rabid animals, biting the viewer on the nose every chance they get. Speaking of which, two of the more egregious are dog characters who would never bite anything more animated than a wagon wheel. When the camera lingers on a dog's face for more than one second, my gag reflex kicks in because I see what's coming: a dead dog. One dog belongs to Kostner. It's a little white ball of fur with seal-pup eyes and just overall as cute a seal pup before it's been clubbed. This dog gets shot by the bad guys (along with the two young men who work for Costner and Duvall) out of pure meanness. The other dog gets rescued by Costner from a muddy flood pouring down main street. If you're of a sweetly sentimental, ironic bent, the fact that this dog is the adorable spitting image of the murdered dead one will probably mean something to you. And Costner. To me, it meant another trip to the bathroom. Duvall saves his most pained expression for the moment when he tells Annette Bening that the bad guys had "shot our dog." In a bar where the barkeep won't serve Costner and Duvall because they're "freegrazers," the saved dog's owner comes running up and says, "It's all right, Pete. These are the fellas who saved my dog." Our heroes are cattle drovers who spend long days in the saddle, but I don't think anyone ever complained about how dog-tired he was.

Does the movie have any virtues?

There are lots of rainstorms - savage, drenching cloudfuls of them. I don't know if that's a virtue, but it's probably symbolic of something.

The cinematography is gorgeous.

Annette Benning (as the sister of the town doctor) is a fine actress, and does well with what little she's given. Her eyes and the lines of middle-age convey nicely the strain of a spinsterhood taking on the appearance of permanence, and of the pain in a heart whose capacity for love can find no outlet. (Costner ruins even this when, at the end, he tells her of his intention to leave soon, and she replies, "I've been holding my love a long time, Charley.." This is nice, for sometimes even the obvious needs stating because it's so painful. But then he makes her finish, teeny-bopper soap opera style, "...and I know you feel something for me too." Yes ma'am, we all been knowin' that for some time now.)

When Sue offers the spare room to Charley and Boss (Duvall) for the night to give them shelter from their pursuing killers, Charley turns her down. "It wouldn't look right, what with the Doc away and all." (He assumes here, mistakenly, that she is the Doc's wife, but it works either way, for she's alone in the house.) Dirty, half-literate cowboys who care about even the appearance of a woman's virtue, not merely the fact of it, a parallel virtue that has all but vanished among the pin-striped and suspendered men (and women) of our own time.

Robert Duvall steals the movie. Every time I see him I'm reminded - even when he's chewing on a bad line - that he's the best natural-born actor I've ever seen. But he gets some good lines too. After he and Charlie bury their murdered friend, the former asks him if he'd like to offer up a few words to God on their friend's behalf, and Boss tells Charley to go ahead because, "I ain't talkin' to that sonofabitch."

The film does manage to capture to some degree what I've always felt was the great premise of the Western movie genre, a premise with an appeal as old as the nation's founding: live free or die. The shootout at the end is well-staged, probably in an effort to outdo "Tombstone," and I'm always in favor of the bad guys taking a bullet for eternity's sake. I guess I'm sentimental in that regard.


At one time I thought Kevin Costner was quite an actor. His Elliot Ness was a calm, bland restrained uninteresting man in an interesting job.
Then I saw more of Costner's work and realized he was always playing Elliot Ness. Which I think derived a lot from playing the corpse at the beginning of The Big Chill.Posted by Ellyn email at February 15, 2004 09:01 AM

I LOVE Robert Duvall. I just saw Secondhand Lions, which is kind of a throw away movie, but he was still good in it.
Cannot stand Costner--ever since that hideous Waterworld thing.Posted by Terry email at February 15, 2004 01:47 PM

Okay Ellyn, you got me laughin'with that one.Posted by William Luse email at February 16, 2004 02:25 AM

Haven't seen that one but the line "the cinematography is gorgeous" resonates with me. That's mostly why I go to see movies - armchair travel. Lord knows I don't expect any decent dialogue. (Although the movie "In America" did get my attention for purposes other than cinemtography. A gut-wrencher.) Posted by tso email at February 16, 2004 12:25 PM

I agree with you about Duvall. Kevin Cosner is just as fine a director as he is an actor (heavy sarcasm here). All that money to make a movie and it seems they couldn't hire an editor. There should have been miles of film on the floor after they got done cutting. Though Open Range was closer to older westerns ideas then it was to some of the modern westerns.Posted by Jeff Miller email at February 16, 2004 10:04 PM

TSO, is that movie you refer to out in video or DVD?Posted by William Luse email at February 17, 2004 03:56 AM

I'm not sure if it's out in video yet. I just saw it at the theatre, so I doubt it, but it's definitely worth seeing when it does. Posted by tso email at February 17, 2004 09:53 AM

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