It is hard to think of a once-bankable actor whose career has declined as steeply and swiftly as Kevin Costner's. Back in the late-Eighties his star burned bright on the strength of his wary, narrow-eyed authority in some fair-to-middling genre pictures - The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams - and reached its zenith when he won Best Director and Best Picture for Dances With Wolves in 1990. History hasn't been kind to the latter, but it looks like a work of poise and majesty compared with what followed. Costner determinedly cast himself in the heroic-messiah mould and one by one - A Perfect World, Wyatt Earp, Waterworld - the movies bombed until it seemed impossible that they could get any longer or drearier. That was until he made The Postman (1997), his crowning folly, and there looked to be no way back for Kev.
But just to prove that there are second, third and fourth acts in American lives, pace Scott Fitzgerald, Costner has shrugged off ignominy and climbed back into the director's saddle. Admire the nerve of his backers, at least, because the project he's chosen is a return to the ambitious western canvas and long running-time (139 minutes) of his glory days: call it Gambles With Dollars. Open Range looks majestic, as the huge vistas of the American plains generally do, and its tone is kin to the muted melancholy of Eastwood's revisionist fable Unforgiven. But it's the contours of Costner's face that I found myself studying more closely; is it fanciful to discern in his expression something slightly humbled? Certainly there is a haunted quality to the character he plays, a Civil War veteran named Charley Waite who drives cattle with his weathered old friend, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall).
The movie, written by Craig Storper, adopts a classic western motif of changing times. It's 1882, and the prairies are being privatised. Independent "freegrazers" such as Charley and Boss find they are no longer at liberty to roam where they please. "This country's fillin' up," reflects Boss, and what it's filling up with are bad'uns like Baxter (Michael Gambon), a brutish cattle baron who regards freegrazers as trespassers. Intimidation blooms darkly into violence, and thence to murder, forcing the two cattlemen to defend themselves and their livelihood.
Charley, it emerges, was a killer from an early age and, like Eastwood in Unforgiven, is trying to put his violent past behind him - but those bastards have just shot his dog, and he'll be damned if he lets them get away with that.
Costner takes his time to set this up; he understands the drama of distant figures moving across empty spaces and the silences that envelop a landscape. And his expansiveness eventually feels deliberate in the way it directs attention towards the intricacies of character. For Open Range, while it echoes the tense countdown of High Noon, is less interested in plot than in the curious relationship between Charley and Boss. What underpins it is a kind of gruff respect: Boss isn't merely Charley's employer, he's also a mentor and perhaps even a surrogate father to the younger man. Yet so laconic is their talk that there are things they barely know about each other. At one point Boss lets slip that he had once been married, but his wife and child both died of typhus; Charley later admits that, despite their riding together for 10 years, this was a complete revelation to him. And there's a wry comedy when, just prior to a gunfight, the two friends finally admit their full names to each other (and we then understand why they kept quiet about them). It's an irony the film relishes that men can be intensely close yet remain strangers.
Another old western argument comes into play when Charley finds himself drawn to a doctor's assistant, Sue (Annette Bening), who has given them shelter. Is it better for a man to quit his nomadic ways and make a home for himself, or should he stay true to "the cold prairie"? Frankly, if the choice were to be tucked up with Annette Bening or freezing your ass off under the stars, I imagine most cowboys would hang up their saddles quicker than you could say "Howdy", but for the sake of the movie Charley struggles with it as a genuine dilemma. Costner and Bening play their scenes together in such a shy, unemphatic manner as to make this late-blossoming romance very touching, and I'm afraid my eyes filled up when Costner secretly examines a catalogue for the china tea service he intends to buy for Sue in recompense for the one he broke.
As befits the genre tradition, the film ends in an almighty shoot-out, staged in a ragged, desultory fashion with sixguns resounding like cannon fire. This is where Charley comes into his own. "I got no problem with killin' - never have," he says, though the tenor of the film suggests a "problem" is exactly what he does have with it, and Sue's shocked expression when she sees what her man is capable of hints at deeper trouble than the movie is willing to explore. (One thinks of In A Lonely Place, where Bogart's propensity for murderous violence ultimately alienates Gloria Grahame.)
Costner just about gets away with it. As an actor, he hasn't resolved the shortcoming of his humourlessness, and probably never will, but he has dispensed with the bombast - here he's not a messiah, just a mess, and you like him for it. As a director, he's done a bang-up job on the western front and given Robert Duvall licence to redefine the word "grizzled". His performance, as much as anything else, is reason enough to saddle up for the ride.Reuse content