In a not at all unusual fashion, I disagree with OSC on what constitutes good acting. Kevin Costner's performance was so flat that it was impossible to forget for one second that he was acting. Now, he has done some good work in his time. Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Silverado, and Dances With Wolves were all movies that I enjoyed. But this isn't one of them. The fact that the dialogue felt completely forced didn't help, but that was not the actors' fault at all; as OSC always says, it's impossible to overcome bad writing.
But the story still intrigued me. (Here my take on the film will take a turn for the analytical, which may put me solidly in the camp of those OSC scorns.) When we look at a western movie, it is important not to look at it merely on its own merits, but to recognize that it is part of an established (and important) genre.
The western is a quintessentially American genre. They are about Americans in an American setting. The first movie ever made was a western (The Great Train Robbery), and to this day more westerns have been made than all other types of American movies combined.
Now, a genre exists because people have created stories that are similar to each other. Genre is not a set of rules that must be obeyed, but rather the common thread in a given body of work. Westerns, like any other genre, have some overarching themes that resound within most of its constituents. Time and again we see the conflict between order and chaos as codified as the lawman versus the villain. We see America's fascination with the frontier moment, where the wilderness is disappearing and civilization is moving in. And against that backdrop we see the conflict between civilization and savagery; it is no accident that the good guys are almost invariably farmers, lawmen, or a hired gun who is working for farmers or lawmen, while the villains are so often ranchers or freegrazing cattle barons. Another theme often raised is that one cannot escape oneself; you have to be what you are (think Shane). And it's no accident that the hero rides off into the sunset at the end; these people, though necessary for survival, still have no place in a permanent society.
So when we think about it this way, a very useful way to examine a film is in how it differs from the genre "standard." The ways in which a film deviates from its genre are a powerful tool for understanding the film's message (and here I don't think OSC could fault me for trying to do so--he often seems more interested in a film's message than it's execution). I found Open Range to be different in some key ways.
The first difference we will notice is that the good guys are freegrazing cattle herders. They go where they want (or are allowed to, as it is spun in this film) and leave when they have no further use for a place. Contrast this with a movie like Shane, where the entire conflict of the film is between Joe Starret and his homesteading friends and Rufus Ryker and his cattlemen. Ryker doesn't like the homesteaders putting up fences along the open range that limit his ability to drive his cattle wherever he likes, so he terrorizes the helpless farmers.
Another stark contrast is the climactic gunfight. As we all know, the person who draws first in a western film is the bad guy. But what about in this film? Costner walks up to his opponent (the only member of the opposing group who is supposedly a renowned gunfighter) and shoots him in the face before the other guy has a chance to react. The rest of the long shootout is equally brutal, shockingly so, in my opinion.
Finally, we have the end of the movie. By and large in western films the gunfighter is a character that longs to be normal, but cannot help who he is: an outsider, and often a killer. In the end, he is left apart from society. To name just a few examples: The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, True Grit, Shane, The Searchers, Red River, Unforgiven. But by the end of this movie, Charlie Waite ends up winning Sue Barlow's heart, as well as her hand in marriage. (And this despite the fact that she has just seen him brutally killing his enemies. And that's really almost all she's seen of him.)
I haven't had time to really think about what the intention behind these differences is, what it all means. But I think it's certainly worth noticing that Open Range is not a typical western.
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I read a Louis L'Amour highly recomended by a family member once, and said family member was highly offended at my bemusement at the fantasy-ending, where the schoolteacher loves the hero but understands his need to go on yet another cattle drive.
This sounds like a different sort of fantasy - not the wild young cowboy's, but the older ranchhand's.
Its not a bad movie, and it was fairly realistic I thought.
There was some cheesy dialogue, and I'm not entirely sure what I think of Kostner's performance. He really does only seem to have an extremely small range.
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More or less how I felt about it. Not bad, fairly realistic, but Costner is difficult to watch. On the other hand, as I mentioned in the review on my website, Costner the director has a very good grasp of epic landscape, which is crucial for a western.
Kat, there are a lot of ways to look at genre, and your comment about westerns being "male romance novels" has a certain amount of truth to it (it is worth noting that film and literature are a bit different, but you can look at genre similarly in both forms). The classic western is certainly not an honest depiction of the Old West; it is a highly codified and romanticized version of it (much in the same way that the classical romances, Ivanhoe for example, are not honest depictions of medieval life). Westerns do tend to appeal more to men, and however much it may pain us to agree with lit-fic critics, a certain portion of the appeal of genre fiction is, indeed, escapism.
But when we look at genre as a phenomenon, we have to try to understand why it's so successful, and therefore important as a part of our culture. The thing about genre fiction is that it is repetitive. Within a certain genre we do tend to see the same tangible and structural/thematic elements (what Rick Altman refers to as "semantic" and "syntactic" elements in his essay "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.") repeated over and over within the body of a given genre. In a certain sense, a big fan of western films, or SF films, or horror films, etc, is seeing the same movie again and again, or at least, different facets of the same archetype. There obviously must be something about the underlying mythos of the genre that resounds with the audience, else why would we keep going back?
And, of course, not all works in a genre are exactly the same story. Leaving aside the immense number of inter-generic films, each work does offer something different, a different slant, a different interpretation. And it is these differences that bring out the author's or director's viewpoint or message, that highlight what is important about an individual film, what the issues and concerns of the genre are. One example is Rio Bravo, which was created by its director, Howard Hawks, as a direct reaction to and against High Noon. Hawks didn't like how Gary Coleman's character went all over town asking for help before the facing down the bad guys himself, so his hero, played by John Wayne, declines help that is offered, as he doesn't want to endanger any innocent bystanders.
Bringing this back to the topic at hand, my initial feeling about Open Range is that the differences it has from the traditional western may have something to do with a shift in our culture. It's an interesting fact that the beginning of the decline of western films coincides with the Vietnam War. Perhaps the differences in this film reflect some of the issues facing America today. This is not to say that the film is meant to be allegorical, but generic departures do tend to indicate some underlying currents on the part of the writer and/or director, especially with a genre as old, established, and thoroughly-analyzed as the western.
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