Film: Without Reference

Wallace Stevens once wrote a poem called “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.” That’s how I like my movies. I don’t like sequels, remakes, homages, paraphrases, or ironic commentaries, least of all when they exude the stale smell of postmodernism, which is to art what theme parks are to county fairs. (Is that reactionary enough for you? I just got back from a vacation, and I’m feeling grumpy.)

Flat statements inspire second thoughts, and no sooner had I made this one than I found myself considering the problem of the postmodern Western. The traditional Hollywood Western died out in the Sixties, killed off by changing tastes and the rise of network TV. The Seventies saw a brief efflorescence, but it was a false dawn, for virtually all the Westerns made in that tiresome decade were ironic commentaries of one kind or another, usually attempts at left-wing cultural debunking, most of which are now deservedly forgotten. By the Eighties, nobody cared enough about the genre to bother with it, even ironically. In recent years the only Westerns worth watching have been Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), whose not-infrequent lapses into trendy debunkery were redeemed by Eastwood’s own gritty performance, and George Pan Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993), a film so refreshingly devoid of irony that one wondered at times if it had actually been shot in 1950 and stowed in a studio vault for safekeeping.

That leaves us with Kevin Costner, auteur of Dances With Wolves (1990) and Wyatt Earp (1994, produced by Costner and directed by Lawrence Kasdan), two exercises in slow-mo PC whose sheer awfulness made so deep an impression on me that I was reluctant to bother with Open Range, Costner’s latest directorial effort (even though it starred Robert Duvall and Annette Bening). So what? Suppose I died of boredom midway through the twelfth reel? Would I really want my last movie to have been directed by the man responsible for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?

Beyond that, I didn’t want to see Open Range because I believe that film by film, traditional Westerns were the finest genre movies to come out of Hollywood. Draw up a greatest-hits list of any other genre, even film noir, then stack it up against my top-ten list of the best Westerns of the postwar era: Canyon Passage (1946), Ramrod (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), Four Faces West (1948), Red River (1948), Winchester ’73 (1950), Hondo (1953), The Searchers (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), Rio Bravo (1959), and Ride the High Country (1962). (Okay, that’s eleven, but who’s counting?) These are films of true excellence, taut and straightforward and morally serious, which also happen to be vastly entertaining. They can be viewed repeatedly without losing their savor. Though they partake freely of the time-tested stock situations of their chosen genre, they always freshen the formulas on which they are based, rather than lapsing into the cheap self-referentiality of the postmodern films that followed them. And—above all—they are not ironic. Tragic, yes, at times quite devastatingly so, but their ironies are the real thing, not the glib Irony Lite on which the filmmakers and filmgoers of Generation X were suckled.

With such a pantheon to choose from, why bother with Open Range? Because Robert Duvall is incapable of giving a casual or unfelt performance. Because a few shrewd reviewers, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal foremost among them, said it was good. Mainly, though, because I longed with all my heart to see a brand-new Western. Of course the old masters are sufficient to sustain a true lover of the arts, but living in the past 24 hours a day is like living in a fallout shelter. No matter how many paintings you take along with you, there finally comes a moment when you want to see a real sunrise. So I girded my loins and went to Open Range… and glory of glories, I wasn’t even slightly disappointed.

Let me get the flaws out of the way first, because they are considerable. To begin with, Kevin Costner still doesn’t know how to direct a movie, at least not very well. Open Range is 145 minutes long and feels it. Despite the hectic cutting from shot to shot—a style that makes no sense in the context of an expansive film about free-grazing cattlemen who ride the lone prairie—quite a few scenes needed to be tightened up, or in some cases dropped altogether. With a few notable exceptions, the 140-minute-long Rio Bravo in particular, most of the best Hollywood Westerns were remarkable for their terseness. (Ride Lonesome is just 73 minutes long.) Long doesn’t always mean dull, but Open Range would have been stronger had it been a half-hour shorter, if not more.

Costner is also addicted to Oscar-baiting portentousness, a tendency on occasional display in Open Range, which contains far too many lingering shots of beautiful landscapes and a few too many monologues in which the stars are allowed to explain their motivations at length. (The best Westerns, by contrast, supply little or no information about the past lives of their principal characters, leaving it to the viewer to imagine what made them the way they are.) Michael Kamen’s drippy score doesn’t help—he tries to turn every significant glance into a full-bore epiphany.

All this notwithstanding, Open Range is still very much worth seeing. Craig Storper’s screenplay could have profited from a bit of pruning, but it’s still crammed full of rich opportunities for actors who know what to do with a good speech. That means, first and foremost, Robert Duvall. Plain, unglamorous, and all but devoid of conventional star quality, he is still the finest film actor of his generation by a long shot, and his slam-dunk performance as Boss Spearman, an aging cattleman determined to do what’s right or die trying, is as good as anything he’s done in his life, up to and including Tender Mercies and The Apostle. The rest of the cast is in hot pursuit—the superlative Annette Bening hasn’t had a role this meaty since The Grifters, and Costner himself is pleasingly laconic as Charley Waite, a gunslinger haunted by his past—but time after time, Duvall is the one to whom your eyes go first.

I haven’t said anything about the plot because it’s a standard one, the old story about a rich rancher, a corrupt sheriff, and a nice guy who gets shot for no good reason. Westerns are not about their plots (though they have to make a certain minimal sense, just like a 19th-century opera libretto). They are morality plays, ritual reenactments of the unending struggle to do the right thing in a wrong world, and they work because they are familiar, just as life itself is familiar. We expect Duvall and Costner to avenge their dead partner and restore order to a town whose people long for it, and we cheer them on because they do so without crossing their fingers, winking at the audience or slipping in clever references to the great Westerns of the past. Trim away the excesses, and Open Range is the thing itself, an old-fashioned Western that takes its heroic values seriously.

What a relief.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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