Open Range (2003)

Directed by Kevin Costner

Every time someone makes a western numerous people comment that the western is dead. We’re to take this as a film given. Personally, I’m sick to death of hearing this. If the form is dead, why do so many people still like them?

With Kevin Costner’s Open Range, the comments I see over and over are something to the effect, “The western is dead but this is a really good movie.” Huh?

I think there is a belief the western is kaput partly because there is a superficial understanding of what the western is.

Some commentators confuse the presence of cowboy hats, horses and guns with what constitutes a western. A western, however, is a mythic morality tale where, quite often, there are cowboy hats, horses and guns.

Driving cattle - a very standard western image.

But there are westerns set in outer space (like many Star Trek episodes) and westerns set on African safaris (like Hatari!). Some are set against backdrops of war (like Tears of the Sun).

If westerns seem “dead” it is only that we appear to be in a period of cultural fog where many of us have become so cynical we’ve abandoned any attempt to think morally.

But thematically, despite Pulp Fiction and its knockoffs, western morality tales remain popular because they continue to address something we struggle with.

Open Range articulates this struggle well.

While it may not be the greatest western ever made, it’s a very good one and captures the essence of the western theme, often by reiterations of standard western scenes.

Free grazers Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall).

A pair of free grazers (Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner) are driving their cattle over the open range.

But the open range of the American west is increasingly less open as land is fenced off by ranchers who are claiming it. The west is filling up; the last frontier is fading.

They come across a rancher who is particularly intent on getting rid of free grazers. He runs a town, Harmonville, keeping everyone under his dictatorial and greedy thumb. In the end, there is a showdown (in the best western tradition).

It sounds conventional because it is, but this is what the best westerns do. They don’t stand out because of their innovation but because of how well they articulate the core western myths.

Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) helps her brother, Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott), care for the town of Harmonville.

Films like these get at the essential paradox of America, “the land of the free.” The more people seek the wide open spaces of America, the more people move into them to be free, the less free America becomes. In westerns, the most free people are also the most lonely. Their loneliness can only be alleviated by joining a community but this also means they are less free. Freedom is conditioned by the presence of others.

We also see, as in Open Range, a desire for law and order. The more people there are, the more constrained our freedom is.

The question becomes, who will impose those constraints? The community, with shared values, or an individual who is more powerful than we are as individuals?

As Open Range plays out, the free grazers played by Duvall and Costner recognize the freedom they had is disappearing. Now, they have to make a choice. Knuckle under to the demands of the wealthy rancher, or become the instruments of the community’s law and order?

The open range of Open Range.

Westerns also seem to be about maturing – growing up, to be blunt. Both as a country and as individuals.

The freedom enjoyed in youth fades over time because it becomes increasingly isolated and lonely. At some point, it has to be put aside for some agreed upon constraints in order to become part of the group.

Open Range captures all this in a film that beautifully evokes the best aspects of the genre.

Unlike other recent movies (like The Quick and the Dead), it doesn’t appear to be interested in commenting on westerns in a modern, deconstructionist kind of way. It aspires to be a western and only a western. It keeps things simple, and this is also a key to the best films of this kind. They aren’t about movies; they are about myths.

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