Believing Is Seeing
“Coltish” is a fine word too often used in a tiresome way, specifically, to imagine girls as wild creatures in need of taming by men who know how to ride them. This image is at the metaphorical center of Billy Bob Thornton’s exceedingly tiresome All the Pretty Horses, which offers Penelope Cruz as the repeatedly slow-motioned, flowing-haired object of desire for would-be riders. As Alejandra, Cruz is less a character than an irresistible image, the Marlboro Man’s wet dream—she rides horses, swims naked, and pouts adorably when she’s mad at her daddy, the wealthy and proud horse rancher Don Hector Rocha y Villarael (Ruben Blades).
Imagine how good Alejandra looks to a young horseman who’s just ridden into Mexico all the way from Texas. John Grady Cole (Matt Damon, who was born to play cowboys in movies—he looks fabulous here) leaves home when his mother decides to sell his grandfather’s ranch. She’s remarried, and Cole’s lonely, beat-down dad (Robert Patrick) doesn’t have much sway with her decision one way or t’other. Left more or less to his own devices, Cole lights out with his buddy Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), looking for adventure and a means to maintain this cowboy life they’ve come to favor. The film opens with a set of images that show just why they love this life—horses thunder across the screen in slow motion, dust churning beneath their hooves, their perfect muscles visible beneath their taut flesh. Cut to an overhead shot of Cole and Rawlins lying on their backs in the grass, looking up at the sky, as one asks the other, “You ever think about dying?” Well, yeah, they both do—it’s 1949 and life in West Texas is hard, even if the horses are pretty and you occasionally get to lie out on the range and contemplate the clouds. They also worry about what might happen after they die, whether there’s a way to know what’s coming, or whether faith is enough to sustain you if can’t know or see the road ahead. Cole wraps up their conversation neatly: “I guess you can believe whatever you want to.”
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning novel and reverently, if spasmodically, adapted by Ted Tally and director Billy Bob Thornton, All the Pretty Horses is a film about belief—how you make it into a system and hold to it—but just what’s at stake in that belief is open to question. As the film opens, Cole’s most immediate and familiar belief system (built on the family, the ranch, and the horses, always the horses) is shattered by what he sees as his citified mother’s betrayal, her sell-out to newfangled ambitions and practices (that this crushing blow is delivered by a banker played by contemporary death-of-the-Western chronicler Sam Shepard is not a little unsubtle). He and Rawlins conceive their journey as a way to preserve their youthful beliefs, and the film frames it as a way to show the loss and destruction of the American West. This loss is initiated by Cole and Rawlins’ decision to cross the Texas-Mexico border, which ends up making for all kinds of metaphorical trouble—they’re also crossing over from youth to maturity and, in Cole’s case, crossing over class and race lines when he falls for Alejandra.
The journey itself is full of instructional episodes, and much of the narrative logic is rendered incoherent due to poor editing : the Cole-Alejandra romance sequence, for instance, is reduced to a cliched montage of sensuous moments. By far the most legible and rewarding plot-section involves Cole and Rawlins’ encounter with a teenage runaway, Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black, who played the kid in Thornton’s Slingblade). Blevins is a welcome live wire, all jangly nerves and pumped-up aggression, and Black is terrific in the part. Cole pegs his huge gun and his fabulous horse as stolen, but Blevins hangs onto them dearly, obviously aware that a man is only as good as what he owns, in particular those established emblems of masculine potency, the gun and the horse. Cole and Rawlins are equally invested in such tokens, of course, but they have each other as well as their stuff, which makes them slightly less trigger-happy. When Blevins has to re-steal his horse one night, he does so with a ridiculous confidence inspired by his youth, poverty, and incipient lunacy—he’s primed to become a legend, or a serial killer. Understanding that his outlaw status will endanger his newfound friends, he scoots off into the darkness, leaving behind a storyline that will miss him dearly—without Blevins, the film turns into a much less energetic, more prosaic affair, a ruggedly romantic paean to a mythic past.
Once over the border, Cole and Rawlins land at Don Hector’s ranch and demonstrate their horsemanship—they break fourteen mustangs in a single day, duly impressing their hosts. The locals celebrate the white boys’ prowess with a montage of music, food, and drink. Thank goodness the real cowboys have arrived! Promoted to Don Hector’s chief advisor on horseflesh, Cole catches the eye of his willful daughter, Alejandra. In one scene, she convinces Cole to let her ride daddy’s big black stallion, bareback (um, this image might be just a little heavy-handed). He knows it’s wrong, he frets that she wants to get him “in trouble.” She smiles and announces, “You’re already in trouble!” Whoosh, she gallops off on the steed, not so tactfully inviting the stunned Cole to chase her. The film doesn’t explore the cultural or historical context for this transgression; it focuses on the idea that Don Hector (or perhaps more to the point, Alejandra’s aunt, played with quiet dignity by Miriam Colon) doesn’t want Alejandra sleeping with the help, but never addresses the obvious anxieties that would be raised by the fact that he’s white and she’s Mexican. Rather, her exquisite and exotic otherness is treated by the camera as if it explains everything—she’s luscious, ooh so desirable, and off-limits, but she’s also a symbol of that Old West Cole has had to abandon back in Texas. And so she must be what he wants, what he wants to believe in.
Of course, the relationship is doomed. What you might not anticipate is the punishment, which, by a circuitous route having to do with Blevins, lands Cole and Rawlins in a scary Mexican prison, where they suffer derision and abuse—that is, they have fallen from the vaulted position they once held at Don Hector’s ranch, because Cole couldn’t resist what amounts to Alejandra’s siren-call. That he’s sacrificed his friend Rawlins into the bargain, well, that is hard to take. And so the film eventually leads Cole on another journey, this time alone, seeking vengeance against the mean and corrupt Mexican police and helped not a little by a reasonable and kindly Caucasian judge back in Texas (played by Bruce Dern, who reportedly completed the role before Thornton abruptly left Dern’s daughter Laura for Jon Voight’s daughter, Angelina). Unfortunately, Cole’s vengeance has lost whatever historical context it may have once had in the novel, and so his story descends into a bit of tying up loose ends, with more than a nod to the self-congratulatory sensibility of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. In All the Pretty Horses, character probably does come down to deciding what you want to believe in, but Cole’s choices are predetermined and, for all the vast beauty of their Western backdrop, trite.