Reverence for the subject matter is no guarantee of success when it comes to converting hallowed fiction to mass-market entertainment. Witness the big-screen treatment of All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy's award-winning novel of the American West. On paper, it's magical, energetic and equestrian; on screen, it's plodding, unfocused and pedestrian. McCarthy's novel was published in 1992, but the film languished in development limbo for seven years--time enough, just barely, for McCarthy to polish off books two and three in his Border Trilogy. Mike Nichols, who first optioned the rights, couldn't close the deal and finally handed the reins of McCarthy's opus to Hollywood's fruitcake auteur du jour, Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton, he of the orange-food-only diet and skittish romantic tendencies, all but champed at the bit: "I know these people," he said of McCarthy's languid cast of cowboys and Mexicans. He may know them, but from the first scenes forward, it's clear he doesn't know how to make them come to life on-screen. It's 1949, and John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins (Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, two of the most freshly scrubbed Texas cowpokes ever to saunter into the sunset) saddle their horses and light out for Mexico in search of open spaces and wild horses. They meet up with Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black, who swung with Thornton in Sling Blade), a cocky, drawling youngster who'll do it his way and maybe end up dead in the bargain. They land work on the ranch of a rich horse-breeder (Ruben Blades), Cole falls for the rancher's daughter (a subdued Penelope Cruz) and, as a result of several events that are likely to befuddle anyone who hasn't read the book, Cole and Rawlins end up in and out of a Mexican jail. That, in a ten-gallon hat, is the plot. McCarthy's novel amounts to much more than the sum of its events. It isn't "about" any one thing, but rather evokes a sense of the American spirit, shifting and restless as it approached the end of the frontier era. That's a slippery thing to capture on film, and even with a devotion to the text, Thornton can't manage it. McCarthy, like Ernest Hemingway, favors clipped dialogue, unsaddled by grammatical conventions like quotation marks. Scriptwriter Ted Tally has approached the book with the same reverence he gave to Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs, preserving pages upon pages. The homage is undermined by Thornton's camera, which bucks like a wild bronco, snapping with whiplash jerks between each speaker's face. These scenes alternate uneasily with postcard-ready vistas and pointless episodes that almost qualify as dream sequences, the most ridiculous of which focuses on a grinning Mexican who dances and claps as Cole chats on a phone. Marty Stuart's ear-crushing soundtrack doesn't help the mood. And thus a work of fiction that contained multitudes ends up being a cluttered set piece about very little at all. The brain trust at Miramax marketing clearly sensed the vacuum too--that is, if the film posters showing Damon and Cruz mistily nuzzling are any indication. Anxious to hang the film on some sort of tangible concept, marketing execs settled on that old standby, Forbidden Romance. Never mind that said romance is only one part of McCarthy's sprawling canvas--whatever plants butts in seats, I guess. Whether he's romancing, riding or surviving incarceration, Damon's golly-gee approach works only sporadically (one wonders if Brad Pitt, who was originally tabbed for the role, would have brought more authenticity to it). He and Cruz have limited chemistry, but it doesn't even matter. Since the film reveals little about these characters and their motivations, their ill-fated love barely registers.
Thornton may not be entirely deserving of the black hat most critics have slapped on his head. He reportedly clashed with two different studios (first Columbia Pictures, then Miramax) over the film's length. His original cut was an epic four hours, a record even compared to long-winded pics by Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone. Miramax demanded that he slash it to two or they'd sharpen the scissors themselves. Thornton complied, claiming he couldn't care less whether what's on-screen connects with viewers--he created the film for the 13 people who will get it. The rest of us would be better off letting this trick pony ride by. Thornton's original version--destined for a director's-cut DVD--will help answer the question of whether McCarthy's book is essentially unfilmable. Until then, saddle up and head to the bookstore.