It's a measure of Kevin Costner's bizarre instincts (or perhaps his own internal range-war of art vs. commerce) that the death of a dog is given more emotional weight than the death of a man in his new film. That might make sense if Costner was directing a remake of Old Yeller, but Open Range is Costner's bid to win the West again, a purportedly grown-up story of what should and shouldn't be fair in love and war where the skies are not cloudy all day. The result is adequate, with some exceptional moments and fine performances bolstered by the lack of Western competition of late but done in by the patented Costner bloat.
Based on Lauran Paine's novel The Open Range Men, the story concerns a tight foursome of "free grazers"--itinerant cattle-driving men--who run afoul of a town ruled by a black-clad rancher's iron fist. These grazers (Costner, Robert Duvall, Diego Luna, and Abraham Benrubi) are half rough-edged sons of bitches and half neophyte softies; through them, the story underlines the Darwinian nature of the tentatively tamed West. When trouble finds the ranchers, they find a prairie doctor (Dean McDermott) and his live-in companion Sue (Annette Bening), whose slow-burn for Costner's Charley Waite makes up the subplot.
Costner is fine as Waite, prickly but vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, Duvall is pure gold, gilding even the hokiest of dialogue; though Bening bravely attempts the same trick, she becomes mired in poorly scripted romantic sap. The supporting players are each relegated to one note, but they sing them well, particularly Luna (late of Y tu mamá también), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter's new screen Dumbledore) as the evil rancher, and the late, great Michael Jeter in his final role, as a Gabby Hayes-esque stable owner.
It's fun to be back in the saddle again, even in the shaky hands of auteur-mode Costner. His Dances With Wolves seemed the exception and not the rule after the follies of Waterworld and The Postman, but Open Range nestles itself in between the 1990 Oscar-winning smash and the twin post-apocalyptic misfires which followed. In fact, Open Range openly invites comparison with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which was also perceived as a Western comeback for its star and likewise featured a tortured hero-with-a-past, torrential setpiece, and meaty supporting cast.
Open Range's speechy moralizing doesn't approach Unforgiven's taciturn shades of gray, nor does it tighten the pictorial and dramatic grip that seemed to effortlessly sustain Eastwood's understated classic. Costner's film is pretty and dynamic, in turns, with sunny vistas and a whip-crack climax of a gunfight (Costner also pulls a neat bait-and-switch with a hallucinatory sequence). But the simplicity of the story--unwilling as it is to develop the supporting players--would seem to demand a more efficient pace. What would be easily recommendable at a tight 90 minutes stretches to a poky 135, with too many of them poorly allotted.
Still, if you're inclined to like Westerns, or feel up to giving a new one (or Costner) a chance, Open Range is easy on the eyes and craftily performed. Go on and saddle up--just bring a cushion.