Left to right: Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall in Open Range. Courtesy photo
Kevin Coster directs - and stars - in a convincing but bracing standoff on America's expanse

No sensible person would blame you for being wary of a new film setting Kevin Costner out to roam through wide open spaces. It was only a few years ago that the star's persona grew so huge that vast new worlds needed to be invented to house it. The endless seas in Waterworld and post-apocalyptic wilderness of The Postman were just barely big enough to compete with the epic earnestness radiating from the actor's chiseled features. It was as if the endearingly square hero of The Untouchables had been dosed with gamma rays and turned into a Hulk of manly sincerity. Kids, lock up your mothers.

What a relief, then, that the green expanses in Open Range are there to feed cattle, not to stand as a metaphor for some vision of America Costner thinks we've forgotten. Westerns lend themselves to allegory, but the conflict here is refreshingly specific: A few free-grazing cattlemen led by Boss Spearman and Charley Waite (Duvall and Costner) find themselves in the backyard of a town that has already moved on to notions of private property; the town's resident plutocrat, an Irishman named Baxter, aims to teach them a violent lesson in capitalism rather than let them move on peaceably.

Dir. Kevin Costner; writ. Craig Storper; feat. Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi (R)
Although Boss Spearman's men tend to speak in rough-hewn homilies, and the Boss himself is set up as the last of his kind - "Ol' Boss shure can cowboy, cain't he," one burly follower says admiringly - his bond with the herd is practical, not romantic. Duvall doesn't talk as if he were emblematic of any ideal of self-reliance, Costner doesn't photograph him that way, and there's nary a hint of pity in the way Boss deals with the townfolk who live cooped up in their little houses. When it becomes clear that Baxter wants to kill the cowboys and take their herd, the old man sets out to confront him as calmly as if he were hunting coyotes.

Similarly, Costner the director refuses to hang too much moral weight on his own character, a former gunslinger who gave up the lawless life 10 years ago. Waite is understandably loathe to call on his mercenary instincts when they are needed, but Costner wisely underplays the character's internal dilemma.

That modesty doesn't extend to every aspect of the picture. Romanticism tugs at Costner throughout the film, and if he never completely succumbs to it, he certainly flirts. It's as if a delicate honey glaze had been applied to the story: The pasture is slightly too green, the dogs are cuter than necessary, Costner puts a few too many pastel wildflowers in the frame, and stretches his earnestly chaste scenes with Annette Bening a couple of minutes too long.

Still, these syrupy tendencies never quite stretch into mawkishness, which is saying a lot for a director whose last work was a three-hour testament to the patriotic power of postage. Open Range builds to a conventional but bracing standoff that neither milks our sympathies nor begs for tension it hasn't earned. In the end, it won't be remembered as one of the great Western revivals, but it shouldn't leave audiences sneering, either. •

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