Dir: Kevin Costner. US. 2003. 138mins.

Kevin Costner returns to his directorial roots in this old-fashioned Western, opting for a conventional formality and epic aesthetic over freshness or innovation. More Shane than The Searchers, the film breaks no new ground in terms of story, character or execution. But its unabashedly straight-forward take on the old West, with its classical embrace of both the pedestrian and the mythic, offers a comforting familiarity that will appeal to older, rural audiences more than to the pre-25 year old urban crowd. Certainly, the chance to see Duvall back in chaps should be enough to bring out faithful fans of Lonesome Dove and Tender Mercies. While Touchstone is unlikely to score a huge hit with Open Range when it opens in the US this weekend, positive word-of-mouth should keep the film in theatres for a few weeks, at least in the provinces.

As with his two earlier directorial efforts, the Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves and the best-left forgotten The Postman, Costner also stars in the picture. He plays Charley Waite, a taciturn cowboy with a well-guarded past, who has been working with Boss Spearman (Duvall) for the past 10 years, free-grazing cattle (letting cattle graze on the open range when you have no property of your own).

It is a typically solitary cowboy life and suits both Charley and Boss just fine. But this is the "eye for an eye" old West and when ruthless, local rancher Baxter (Gambon) comes after the two men and their small crew of Button and Mose, (Luna and Benrubi), they vow revenge. "We owe him for what they done to Mose," says Charley in typically terse fashion.

An even more unexpected turn-of-events is Charley's attraction to comely spinster Sue Barlow (Bening) who, like most of the good citizens of Harmonville, fears Baxter. Mistakenly believing Sue to be the wife of the town's doctor, Charley chooses not to act on his feelings.

Although the final confrontation is a given almost from the get-go, the story unfolds slowly. In fact, much of the film's two-hour-plus running time can be considered a kind of increasingly violent foreplay, as the two sides add insult to injury. The final shoot-out is also a drawn-out affair but well worth the build-up and the time it takes to play out.

Storper's script, based on Lauran Paine's novel The Open Range Men, is filled with pithy, old West dialogue, the kind of sage, if stereotypical, remarks that manage to be at once flavourful and ridiculous. "A man'll tell you what he wants if you hear him," intones Charley earnestly. Later, he offers: "There are things that gnaw on a man worse than dying."

The film wears its old-fashioned sentiments on its sleeve. Equally insistent are the Super 35mm vistas, which are so carefully composed they begin to look phony. It's those same vistas and sentiments, however, which give the film its sense of grandeur. The film's only truly intolerable element is Kamen's dreadfully generic score, which manages the difficult task of being bland and overblown at the same time.

Pro cos: Tig Prods, Cobalt Media Group, Touchstone Pictures
US dist:
Buena Vista Pictures
Int'l dist:
Buena Vista International
Exec prods:
Armyan Bernstein, Craig Storper
David Valdes, Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts
Craig Storper, based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine
James Muro
Pro des:
Gae Buckley
Michael J Duthie, Miklos Wright
Michael Kamen
Main cast:
Robert Duvall, Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi