Galloping horses, yearning heroes, and shrinking horizons. The clichés defining the Western are everywhere in Kevin Costner’s Open Range. The camera sweeps over a herd of cattle and attendant cowboys, the reverent chorus swells, and the storm clouds gather. From astride his horse, Charley Waite (Costner) looks up and squints. “Looks like we’re in for it,” he tells his best friend Boss (Robert Duvall). Mmm-hmm. Looks like.
The “it” here is the usual, a contest between one way of life and another, both laid out in broad moral terms, in this case, around 1882. Scripted by Craig Storper from Lauran Paine’s novel, The Open Range Men, Costner’s film assumes the usual mythology: the West “died” when corporate thinking encroached on the boundless spirit of the cowboys (omitting other, less romantic episodes, such as the decimation of populations or resources). On one side are Charley and Boss as “free-grazers,” along with gentle giant Mose (Abraham Benrubi), Mexican orphan Button (Diego Luna), and loyal dog Tig. On the other, the Irish immigrant cattle rancher Baxter (Michael Gambon, with so little screen time that his ostensible wickedness barely registers) and his “boys,” including Sheriff Poole (James Russo). The former, old school cowboys through and through, value the splendor of the land, while the latter, crass and avaricious, only want to exploit it.
The movie takes its time laying out this stock conflict. James Muro’s camera pans over repeated magnificent vistas, as well as comfy campfire conversations where shadows fall artfully over weathered faces. Well worn and unsurprising, these images don’t move plot so much as they delineate character and context: Boss and Charley essentially play parents to the goofy Mose and naïve little Button, whom they more or less “adopted” after finding him years before, alone and hungry. Though the film doesn’t articulate this relationship as such (and Button was Caucasian in the novel), the interracial, inter-national family unit is at once forward-looking and discomfiting, as the well-intentioned white adults look after the young Mexican so eager to emulate them.
More focused on its conservative plot than this potentially dicey cultural intersection, Open Range follows trajectories that resemble the Lawrence Kasdan Westerns in which Costner’s starred (Silverado  and Wyatt Earp ), as well as his own Dances With Wolves (1990). The defining conflict has to do with competing notions of masculinity — what a man’s gotta do. As frame for this showdown, the film juxtaposes the big country’s poetry with the town’s gritty closeness.
Not only is it owned by Baxter and governed by the corrupt sheriff and his pack of rascally deputies, but as well, its dirt streets become muddy rivulets when it rains, which is often (the painfully good-hearted Charley actually saves a puppy from drowning in one deluge). At the same time, and as in many traditional Westerns, the town represents “progress,” with buildings under construction and other signs of “civilization” in its rudimentary businesses — the dry goods store, the saloon, the livery stable, the doctor’s office.
It’s here that Charley meets his own civilizing force, the doctor’s sister Sue (Annette Bening, who does very well with a barely written role). Plucky and practical-minded, Sue’s as able as the Doc (Dean McDermott) when it comes to setting broken bones and bandaging bloody heads, and she can set a decent tea service to boot. He’s so moved to impress her that, when he tracks in mud during a visit, he scrambles to scoop it up piece by piece into his hat. She’s in another room, dressing, and the camera is close on his face, just when they catch one another’s eyes. Busted for spying on her when what he’s trying to do is look neat and well behaved, he barely knows what to do. Awkward and endearing, they exchange glances via her mirror, her body and his desire both exposed.
This romance, however mildly appealing, has to wait for the film’s inevitable shootout, where the men do what it is they’ve got to do. Initiated when Baxter’s flunkies commit egregious violence, the vengeance plot forces Charley to show off his skills despite his reluctance to do so; like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, he’s trying to put his gnarly past behind him. Still, a plot turn is a plot turn, and, as Boss notes, “Best get your mind right about what’s got to be done.” Charley nods. “I got no problem with killin’, Boss. Never have.” Yup.
Their longstanding friendship sketched in these sorts of cryptic exchanges, Charley and Boss share a distinctly and conventionally masculine intimacy, the kind that shows up regularly in Westerns and action movies. As Boss readily admits, “We’re just like an old married couple,” aware of each other’s shortcomings and strengths, and mindful of what needs protecting. While they share obvious paternal affection for Mose and Button, their mutual fondness for one another is slightly harder to articulate. “Don’t stand behind me,” growls Charley when he’s trying to psyche himself into a killing frame of mind. Or, when Boss embarrasses him in front of Sue, Charley suggests, “How ’bout I hold your head under water for just a little while?”
This intimacy has its own trajectory, even as Boss goads Charley to say something nice to Sue before they set off for the destiny prescribed by their guy code (“Men are gonna get killed today,” he tells her. “And I’m gonna kill ’em.” And with that, she gives him her lucky locket, as close to a proposal of marriage as he’s likely to get). Waiting in the hot sun the villains to arrive at the appointed spot, Boss and Charley smoke cigars and eat melted chocolates (all the way from “Switzerland, Europe”), Open Range‘s corniest and sweetest moment.
Their bond is only strengthened, of course, once the gunfire starts. Admirably, the actual shooting is inelegant, brutal, and loud, with missed shots, slamming through walls, and old-time-stunty falls from rooftops. If it weren’t for all the building up and underlining of the code, this shootout might be compelling. But, again as in most conventional Westerns, the shootout only fulfills an overdetermined moral judgment. Charley is redeemed for his bad past by committing the same bad acts that got him needing redemption to begin with. How neat.