This is the review I will have posted up at DVD Town and Rotten Tomatoes coming up shortly. Enjoy! Before I get into my review, I have to give a shout out to my new best friends, Harold Mester and Jason Fischer from WISN 1130 in Milwaukee. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten into the show. I won’t elaborate on why, but suffice it to say, “Thank you.” Allow me to set the scene for you. A grand auditorium, decorated to the hilt in grand, 20’s style, filled with friends of the Kohler company who paid well-over one hundred dollars per ticket. Introducing the film was Herb Kohler, the chairman and CEO of the Kohler company, who has a small (but excellent) cameo in the movie and his good friend, actor/director Kevin Costner. There is nothing that will change an audience’s perception of a film than the creator sitting in their midst. I sat about twenty rows back, a row behind Costner and Kohler (which seriously limited my smart-aleck comments.) When the lights went down and the curtains pulled open, the first thing I was reminded of what Costner’s incredible eye for scenic vistas. Say what you will about “The Postman,” but one of the redeeming factors of that mess was the visual style that was developed. Shot in the great white north, Costner’s small city is an excellent recreation of what I see as an outpost city in the Old West, after the conclusion of the Civil War but before the advent of the Modern age, in that tweener time when the country didn’t know what it was, or what it was becoming. In the interim, there was a clash between those who viewed the West as a new beginning for the nation, where there were no rules or boundaries, where a man was free to go where he pleased, and those who believed much the same, save that they should be in control if they pleased. This highly polarized political issue isn’t the first, nor the last that is presented, for good or not, in “Open Range.” The film begins as the Open Rangers, Costner’s Waite, Robert Duval as Boss, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”’s Diego Luna as Button, and “ER”’s Abraham Benrubi as Mose, hunker down to shelter themselves from an approaching storm… wrangling their cattle to safety, pitching a tent, each member of the small crew chipping in to assist the whole group. The film’s main theme, that being the powerful bond of friendship is established early as the gang passes the storm by playing cards, and Button looks on to Mose’s cards, and rather than play unfairly and violate the trust of a friend, Waite folds and walks away. Even though Button apologizes to Waite for violating his trust, the elder cattleman holds his grudge until it can be properly expressed, showing the power and respect he puts into friendship and trust. Once the storm subsides and the group breaks camp, they realize they are dangerously low on some needed provisions, so Mose is sent into an admittedly-hostile town to pick up what is needed, while the rest of the group forges ahead. After a day passes with no Mose, Boss and Waite venture into the town to discover what befell the behemoth. What they find is a town ruled by a cattle rancher who is none-to-friendly to those who would go through his land, the sheriff who is his lackey, and a town caught in the middle, under the rule of this dictator who controls the economy and thus their lives. The conflict between the free-rangers and excellent Michael Gambon as Baxter is the heart of the film, and serves as the catalyst to propel the movie forward to its inevitably exciting conclusion. Though I have already mentioned the wonderful scenery and cinematography, and the place of awe and belief they brought me to in the film, I have to comment on the real glue of the picture, the supporting cast. The late Michael Jeter, who Costner called one of the greatest actors of his generation, is a sympathetic stable owner who gives his normal, quirky performance but is both so likeable and believable that you can’t help but smile to see him on the screen. The various citizens of the small town Waite and Boss dedicate themselves to liberate seem, much like their surroundings, to have been lifted from the late 19th century. The operator of the Saloon, the proprietor of the General Store, and even Herb “Café Man” Kohler are wonderful in their roles, because they don’t seem to be acting at any point, rather they are playing it straight as though they were living their situation. And, to be honest, Herb Kohler steals the show in the culminating battle of the film. Watch for him, it’ll be impossible to miss him. For as much praise as I can lump on to the supporting cast, I cannot give that praise onto the leads, Costner and Duval. I think that both, given better material, could have made more out of the characters, instead worked with the simple story and didn’t craft the characters into rounded individuals. Duval plays his Boss the same way he has played a dozen other roles, and from his extensive verbage, I never got a true sense of the character. Same goes for Costner’s Waite, who speaks about the pain and tragedy he has suffered through, as he exposes it to Button for the first time, never lets any anguish for his loss, any human dignity, seep through. The way the actors carried themselves, I never saw Boss and Waite on the screen, I only saw Robert and Kevin. A lot of that lack of character development I attribute directly to the material they had to work with. Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood hit things right on the head four decades ago when the released the now-classic Spaghetti Westerns, that men on the range don’t really have a lot to say. They aren’t the best educated, per se, nor are they the most eloquent people on the earth. Now there are exceptions, as I’m sure there were in the Old West. Not only were Boss and Waite well-spoken, they both espoused a tremendous amount of philosophy and did so in such a verbose way that it conflicted with the strong-but-silent view presented early in the film. When the two leads sit back to reminisce about the past, to reflect on the fact that they have been riding together a decade, it is with such stilted and forced dialogue that I was ripped out of the film and reminded that I was watching a screen. This is counter-pointed later in the film when Waite and Boss both share big secrets about their past, implying that everything before the start of their partnership was kept as tight as a dirty secret. But considering how much philosophizing this pair does based on their past, I found it disgusting that the author would have me believe that these two never talked about their pasts. It is the weakness of those characters that struck me the hardest in “Open Range.” The ludicrous nature of the script is enhanced by the amount of posturing diatribes each of the main characters receives, most notably Costner. For example, after Mose is retrieved from the Sheriff, Waite goes off on the differences between the open and cloistered rangers, giving a sermon on why one way of life is better than another. The entire time he was speaking, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Waite, you’re talking to Boss… the guy you have been riding with for ten years, I think he agrees.” It is these overindulgent political postures that ripped the film further from reality and into absurdity. The only major subplot, a love-at-first-sight romance between Annette Bening and Kevin Costner feels completely tacked on, and it goes through a couple, simple steps: He sees her, falls in love, finds out she’s single, tells her he is going to kill a lot of people, and then asks her to marry him. I’ll grant you it worked for Costner’s simple character, who never had the chance to experience life or love before, but it seems completely out of place in a movie that is dedicated to freedom vs. oppression. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, will certainly be lauded by some as a return to the westerns of old, the final showdown between a dozen or more of Baxter’s men and the two bastions of “justice,” who advocate killing many to ensure the rights of a few, Boss and Waite. Standing toe-to-toe, Boss and Waite are able to follow killshot with killshot, while their enemies bullets find no target, and despite the terrible odds, the champions of “justice” prevail, killing many men because of a conflict of ideology, while only ending up with minor wounds themselves. In the end, the city is glad to be rid of a corrupt Sheriff and the Gestapo-like servants of Baxter, Costner gets the girl and they ride off into the sunset. If I were able to turn my brain off, stop thinking of basic odds, and historical accuracy, I might have found myself able to believe that two, over-the-hill men could beat a dozen in their prime. Perhaps most distracting to me, in retrospect, was the blatant justificatory allegory the film serves up regarding United States foreign policy? Don’t believe me? This following section is a point-by-point comparison, so if you want to discover it for yourself, you may want to skip to the second-to-last paragraph of this review. And, if I see this showing up in any film student term papers, I damn well want a footnote. First, in the beginning of the film, Mose is sent off to a hostile, foreign town where he is attacked. We can compare this simply to pre-9/11 policies where the United States was an invasive presence in foreign lands, but not in an active degree in most cases, but there were attacks at Embassies, the USS Cole, etc where the US went in to investigate further and threaten the attackers, just as Boss and Waite did. Next, the scene where Mose is killed and Button gravely injured while Waite and Boss are off at a preemptive strike can be clearly drawn to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, with that action prompting the true Americans, Waite and Boss, to foist their “justice” on Baxter and his crew and imposing their views of what is right and wrong regarding land management policy onto a people that may or may not want it. It was at this point that the allegory and metaphor kicked into high gear for me while I was sitting in the theater, where to punctuate the decivilzed nature of Baxter’s men, Waite’s cute white dog is mutilated. Baxter stands as an Osama or Saddam, a foreign man who was controlling a land of people who resented him and his rule, thus further justifying Waite and Boss’s actions. The gun battle, at the end of the film, is further representative of the war in Iraq. Before hand, the apathetic majority tried to get out of the way, while the dedicated store owners stayed to protect their investments. The combatants were all that was left to litter the street with bullets, blood, and bodies. The United States, in this portrayal, is entirely justified in launching a well-planned and announced plan to remove the dictator (Waite, Boss, and Baxter, respectively) and kill anyone who gets in their way. Before the fight starts, Costner says the line heard in the trailers, “There are a lot of people going to die today, and I’m going to kill them.” That is followed by an unapologetic shot after the killing is done of bodies being dragged out of the streets, seeing the death as a victory, instead of the unneeded loss of life that it truly was, since diplomacy was discarded long before it was given the chance. After the movie, as I sat back and listened to the comments of the audience as they filed out of the theater, they confirmed much of what I had been thinking. My jaw nearly hit the floor as one said, “I liked it. Only the bad guys died.” I thought to myself, how can they be bad, all they were doing was following orders and they had a different opinion of the outsiders. The problem is, I’m not quite sure where Costner is planted in the whole debate. I honestly wish I could have pinned him down after the movie (he was quickly ushered toward the exit, negating the chance for me to probe the creator further about his work) and asked where he stood on this issue. Costner made some rather surprising comments in a press conference before the film’s showing, responding to an innocuous comment by a TV reporter looking for a sound bite on Ahnold’s candidacy for governor. He ended up going off on the press for our perception of entertainers as unpolitical figureheads, whereas he wanted to make sure that we understood that actors are very political. It was this statement that solitified, in my mind, his true intentions to create an allegory of US foreign policy. But in the end, no matter where he stands, it was clear to me this was a metaphoric look at the necessity of warfare and the current state of US foreign policy. Looking back, I find it clear and hope to see the movie again when it opens theatrically to see if, as I watch the events unfold, I feel the same way. In the end, I think the movie tries too hard to be both a moral barometer of “justice,” right and wrong, and legal ethics and an amoral Western that revels in death. As I mentioned before, I am a fan of Sergio Leone’s amoral (and some would argue immoral) Westerns, so I do not draw a preachy line. Instead, what I see is a work of fiction that is itself an adaptation of the written word where those diatribes and discourses between Boss and Waite work, but they do not translate well to a visual medium. What we are left with is a highly-moral child who tries to play with the cool kids and act like breaking a window is no big thing, while it tears him up because he knows its wrong, and he tries to tell his friends that. It is that lack of definition that really hurts the film “Open Range.” If you are a diehard fan of the Western genre and want to see this movie on the big screen, there is little I can say to dissuade you, and I hope you enjoy it. For those sitting on the fence, I would recommend a viewing to see the wonderful, epic vistas Costner scouted out and shot, and the sweeping score, not to mention the political subtext of the entire film, to see if you agree with me or not. Although I find Costner’s acting suspect and have never enjoyed him from a realistic perspective, I do honestly believe he has an eye scenery and knows how to get a shot to convey a lot of emotion and drama. His elementary camera moves can get a little distracting, but not so much that it will hurt a good-or-bad film, which is all he seems to make, with little in between. I don’t know many people who are ambivalent about his movies, that is for sure. The Western fan will find plenty to like in Costner’s “Open Range,” and I’m sure the casual moviegoer will feel they get their money’s worth. My only word of caution, to those who see the film, is to have your political filter on high, and watch what happens when Hollywood tries to go political in a film. I felt it was too forced and overt in “Casablanca” and I don’t like it here, either. But even without that content, the weak main characters and forced dialogue would make this film a rental or DVD purchase at very best. See you later, neighbor!