The film opens on a vast prairie where a group of free grazers have temporarily settled. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) leads the group as a wise and easy-going grazer. He takes his time but is never hesitant nor unready to fire his weapon for any reason. He is accompanied by his employee of ten years, Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), a veteran of the Civil War who is trying to control his malicious side that shows no mercy towards his enemy. He feels safe around Boss, and has confidence through his guidance and leadership.
Also in the group is the gentle giant who goes by Mose (Abraham Benrubi), a strong worker and the probably the most loyal to the pack willing to do any task for the greater good. Finally there's Button (Diego Luna), a young 16-year-old who had no family when he was picked up. Because Mose and Button have little say in the decision making process, they have bonded together as faithful companions along with their playful dog.
The movie takes its time developing the characters, in fact some will think the film takes too much time before getting into the real action which doesn't take place until the climax just moments before the closing credits. But it's excused because the story is easy to get into. The characters are likable and the conversations and interactions we witness are enjoyable if not funny.
The group eventually settles outside of an unwelcoming town to pick up a few supplies with Mose being the one sent on the errand. When he doesn't return in the day that he's allotted, Button is told to guard the wagon and cattle while Boss and Charley head into town to find him. They meet and befriend the town coot (Michael Jeter) who informs them that Mose was arrested and is currently locked up for starting a fight in the town's convenient store. Boss and Charley immediately become suspicious because they know Mose "doesn’t start fights, he ends them." He was beaten as a warning to unwanted free grazers.
The sheriff (James Russo) reluctantly releases Mose when the orders are given by Baxter (Michael Gambon), the town Mayor. Mose is badly beaten, and is taken to the town doctor, Barlow (Dean McDermott). He lives with his sister Sue (Annette Bening) who is often mistaken as the doc's wife. Charley thinks that too, and won't realize she's fair game until midway through the film when a relationship begins to sprout.
We often see Sue and the doc because Boss and his gang are often making frequent trips after getting into fights. They are unpopular with Baxter who does not like free grazers. He contracts bandits and hired killers to rid his town of unwanted outsiders, but this time he has picked the wrong group to mess with.
As a man of principle, Boss doesn't like being picked on or told what to do. And when an unfortunate tragedy strikes the group, it's all about revenge and redemption. This brings us to the big shootout at the end which is worth every minute of dialogue and scenes of little action that lead up to the grand finale.
The action is exciting and unique. Many films display gun fights, but how many have the hero using the hammer of his pistol to fire rapidly at his enemy? Younger audiences may find themselves a little anxious before the final fight because there is little gun toting beforehand. Most of the film centers around relationships and details to customs. It's all enjoyable nonetheless, and the absence of unnecessary violence truly makes the heart grow fonder of the great shootout that probably wouldn't have been so great had the entire film been one giant massacre.
Written by Craig Storper based on the novel by Lauran Paine, the screenplay is full of light-hearted humor, some of being the kind of stuff only Duvall can pull off. After revealing his birth name to Charley right before the final showdown, he has him swear not "to ever tell anybody." It's a reasonable request when you hear what it is. He is also funny when he steals a bottle of chloroform from the doctor's medicine cabinet and begins using it on his captives at will. After inhaling the chloroform, Boss later wakes them up with a less than flattering violin number, holding up the bottle and asking who wants breakfast.
When the film descends from its bloody climax, it starts to linger a little longer than we'd like it to. But the movie is great, and I somehow envisioned Costner in the cutting room floor not wanting to cut anything out because I'm sure he was deeply satisfied with this production. I know I am so will most audiences. The Western is alive.
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