Like a herd of cattle, Open Range wanders across the screen, stopping here and there to munch on some grass. But if you can adapt yourself to its moo-cow rhythms ' the vast stretches of silence between the "yup"s and "nope"s and "I reckon"s ' then you may not begrudge the time spent in its company. Kevin Costner, who directed the movie and stars as Charley, a cowpoke with a gunslinging past, has a great love for the classic Westerns of the '40s and '50s. As a director, he doesn't try any fancy stuff, just lays the story out in front of us and throws in some shots of sky and land meeting in the far distance. And, somehow, that's enough.
The story's as old as the hills it's set among ' a dispute over grazing rights. Charley works for Boss Spearman, a man of few words, all of them well chosen and delivered with old-cuss gusto by the great Robert Duvall. For nearly 10 years, the two have herded cattle together ' free-grazers they're called, moving from one piece of land to another, wherever the grass is greener. It's perfectly legal, but they run into trouble outside a town called Harmonville. The local cattle baron (Michael Gambon), who basically owns the town, doesn't take kindly to someone else's herd dining out at his expense. Time to teach the boys a lesson.
You don't have to spend very much time with the boys to realize that there aren't too many lessons they ain't already learned. Of the two leads, only Duvall has the gravity to play a man with more past than future. But he and Costner get a nice thing going ' the back-and-forth of two guys who've been together so long they might as well be married. Lest that thought lodge itself in our minds (the nights are awfully long out on the lonesome prairie), the movie cooks up a budding romance between Charley and Annette Bening's Sue, a woman who's coming dangerously close to spinsterhood. Strong and pretty, Sue's the future that could erase Charley's past.
As the nuts and bolts of Craig Storper's serviceable script tighten, you can smell the blood in the air. But Open Range cuts the growing tension with humor, turning Charley and Boss into a low-key comedy team ' Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on Viagra. Which makes the inevitable shoot-out all the more shocking. Costner wants to show us how these things really went, not how we wish they'd gone. And the result is a bloody mess, shots fired so fast it's hard to tell who killed whom. For that alone, Open Range is worth seeing. But its best moments are the quiet ones when the cowboys, like the cows, are standing around chewing the cud.