My Stetson’s Off to Open Range

When the current silly season is over, Arnold Schwarzenegger may win over the pectoral college, but Kevin Costner will get the popular vote. His wonderful new film Open Range is the kind of movie guaranteed to make just about everybody happy. If cowboy movies are passé, it’s because they all look and sound alike. But once in a blue moon, one comes along-like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven -that makes you sit up, take notice and dream of John Ford, William Wyler and Budd Boetticher. Open Season is that kind of movie: a juicy, character-driven western with a real plot that spins a hypnotic narrative, characters that defy clichés and make you care how they all turn out, enough guns and violence to remind you you’re not at Disney World, and gorgeous, airy camerawork that makes the world look like it’s on a permanent vacation. And then you’ve got Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall as two likable, scuffed-up saddle tramps who take on an entire town to avenge the murder of an innocent friend and save their cattle from a corrupt lawman and a lawless rustler. Imagine Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea, with a glow around them in widescreen and Technicolor. As movies go, this one may be a genuine pleasure for just about everybody but the critics. Frankly, it doesn’t provide much to grouse about.

Boss (Mr. Duvall) and Charley (Mr. Costner) are the last of the free-range cowboys-a dying breed of callused cowpunchers on a cattle drive who hate fences, railroads and all signs of encroachment on what used to be the wide-open spaces of the American frontier. Although they’ve been partners on the trail for 10 years, both men have secrets in their past they have never revealed to anyone, including each other. Boss is also a kind of foster father to the other two members of their crew-Mose (Abraham Benrubi), a hulking lug with the power of an ox and the mind of a child, and an orphaned Mexican teenager they call Button (Diego Luna). When Mose and Charley’s dog are killed, and Button is seriously injured and kidnapped, by a mean-spirited rancher named Denton Baxter (another unforgettable entry in his portrait gallery of villains by the intimidating British actor Michael Gambon), who uses his hatred of “free-grazing” cattle passing through his territorial boundary lines as a cover-up for his real plans to steal their herd, Boss and Charley invade the nearby town, where the local citizens are victimized by Baxter and the cowardly sheriff (James Russo). With the boy’s life in the balance, no time to wire for a federal marshal and a tremendous storm coming, Boss and Charley are stranded in the hostile town with only the doctor’s sister (Annette Bening, without a shred of makeup, in one of her most appealing roles) to help. The saloon showdown and the inevitable O.K. Corral shootout reminiscent of High Noon keep the pace focused in the barrels of the guns without much surprise, but Mr. Costner’s strength as a director is the way he balances the violent action sequences with the kind of introspective character analysis that keeps the audience interested and concerned. Based on The Open Range Men , a novel by Lauran Paine, the screenplay by Craig Storper gives all of the participants plenty of time to develop and space to move around in. Boss hit the trail after his wife died, and Button is the son he never had; Charley has lived a life of guilt ever since he killed a man as a teenager and turned to a career as a gunslinger before finding inner peace on the “open range.” Making plans after the storm to get revenge against the cattle thieves while the whole town scurries away, Boss and Charley’s daunting, life-threatening crisis forces them to share their inner thoughts with each other in moments of piercing intimacy. Even when they are forced to fall back on the wisdom of their fists and their Winchesters, they never lose their sense of humanity and fair play. This may be the best example of male bonding since Butch and Sundance. Unlike the old stereotypes played by Jimmy Stewart in boots, they are reluctant heroes, warts and all. Out of the mud and the blood, the film is, above all, a love story between these two men, and between Charley and the pioneer woman he learns to trust. It’s the kind of flick that makes grown men cry.

There’s humor, too, watching these two horny toads try to get their fat, dirty fingers through Annette Bening’s proper china tea cups, or Mr. Duvall, indulging his sweet tooth with a hankerin’ for an expensive stick of chocolate “from Switzerland, Europe,” and a good Cuban cigar. With his own horse sense and peculiar code of ethics, he’s a perfect counterpart to Mr. Costner, whose inner rage hides a decent heart. I always thought this very contemporary filmmaker made a better baseball player than cowboy, but the way he wears his battered hat like a scar and spits between the crack in his two front teeth, he puts the Marlboro man to shame. No matter what you think of his films-and he’s had some flops so noisy they sounded like the bombing of Hiroshima-you have to admit that his passion for movies always shows. He cares what they look like, how they play out for an audience, what they have to say on paper and on celluloid. He shows sensitivity for other actors and a great eye for composition: two horses struggling to cross a river upstream in a breathtaking long shot. A herd of cattle slugging through a field of bluebells. The Milky Way, from the point of view of a man sleeping on his saddle. The proud, silent looks on the faces of the local citizens as a whole town gets its dignity back. Mr. Costner knows more than most directors how to make a movie speak through the camera lens, and the excellent cinematographer James Muro makes a perfect collaborator. The test of any really great movie is how well it transports the viewer beyond the screen into its own aesthetic vision. With Open Range Mr. Costner makes Canada look like Montana and all of us feel like we’re moving west with the wagons in 1882. It doesn’t feel like make-believe at all. No paper moons in canvas skies. And danger lives behind every Indian sign.

People seem to like what Mr. Costner does. Since Dances with Wolves and Bull Durham , it’s been easy to rush to judgment. I still get hives when I think of Waterworld , but even that critical massacre made a profit. Open Range was made for a more modest $23 million budget and figures to become an ever greater popular box-office success. I’m kind of larked up by all of this. Frankly, I’ve had it up to here with movies about computer technology, punk-rock bands and zit-faced teenagers trying to get laid. My own world-weary Stetson is off to Kevin Costner and Open Range , a rare sagebrush saga with the welcome kind of value, integrity, intelligence and old-fashioned cinematic artistry we could desperately use more of.

Teenage Wasteland

Heading for a badly needed vacation, I leave with a few parting words on two more movies you might want to see in the next few weeks. Evan Rachel Wood is a formidable actor of inestimable maturity with the patrician beauty of Grace Kelly and the emotional depth of Garbo, who-as fate, providence and Hollywood casting confusion would have it-just happens to be temporarily trapped in the body of a 13-year-old child. She became a guilty habit of mine during her dazzling run in my favorite, now-defunct television series Once and Again , and she has made the kind of small inroads in feature films that a few years ago were offered to the nubile Reese Witherspoon. This may change on Aug. 20, when the teeming masses get a look at Thirteen , a grim and harrowing look at uncontrollable urban teenagers making a brief mall stop near you on their way to Hell.

First-time director Catherine Hardwicke closes in on the angst and anger of adolescents jockeying for power and popularity in the pressure cooker called “Girl Culture”-a dangerous and self-destructive subculture fueled by cool, abstract experiments with sex, drugs, body piercings and crime. Ms. Wood plays Tracy, a normal, intelligent, pig-tailed kid who leaves her teddy bears and Barbie dolls behind when she enters junior high and hits the ground running. Peer-pressured into emulating the fastest girl in school, a lost cause named Evie (played by Nikki Reed, who co-authored the screenplay with director Hardwicke, based on her own true experiences in the Girl Culture scene). Desperate to fit in, Tracy becomes anorexic, snorts cocaine, steals pocketbooks, pierces her tongue and navel, and mutilates her body with scissors, needles and razor blades, right under the nose of her own mother, a chain-smoking, recovering alcoholic who is too self-involved to notice. The single mother, played by Holly Hunter with the gothic weirdness of a dying vampire, already shares her shotgun house with a live-in cokehead lover and a best friend whose mother is a crack whore. Since her home environment is already filled with people who are one step away from jail themselves, it’s no wonder Tracy ends up in threesomes perfecting her technique for oral sex and goes from straight A’s to flunking the seventh grade. It’s the other side of the moon from Peggy Ann Garner in Junior Miss.

Thirteen is a new slant on the dysfunctional-family genre film. This time, the family is in a state of suspended psychosis. I have no idea what it all means. I’m not a parent, so I confess I am blissfully ignorant and out of touch on the subject of uncontrollable adolescent hysterics. I shudder to think any of this bleak despair is for real, but I’m told it doesn’t address even half the horrors of today’s teenage twilight zone by the long-suffering parents of modern American kids with credit cards and raging hormones who make the delinquents in Rebel Without a Cause seem like illustrations in Archie and Veronica comics. It must be irritatingly inconvenient for an accomplished talent like Evan Rachel Wood to be relegated to 13-year-old roles that are far from pretty in pink. She’s still a marvel as the downwardly spiraling Tracy, and the only reason I can think of to suffer through the graphic sadism of this movie. As Tracy inevitably deteriorates, the color washes out of the film in a state of anemia very much like her own. Ms. Wood’s vulnerability fuses the print with its only life force, but her cobalt blue eyes fade and the movie turns pretentiously black-and-white. Everyone in it needs a blood transfusion, and before it’s over, so will you.

The Real Deal

Passionada (opening Aug. 15) is a charming and luxurious romantic interlude carefully constructed to cool the embers of a smoldering summer and briskly lead the way to the hopeful changes of autumn. Set in the Portuguese fishing community in New Bedford, Mass., it follows the lives of three generations of women in the Amonte family whose husbands, fathers and sons were lost at sea on a doomed vessel called the Azorean Blue . Grandma Angelica (the fabulous Lupe Ontiveros) is a pragmatic matriarch who doesn’t want to see her own widowed daughter waste her life living in memories of the past. Daughter Celia (Sofia Milos, who plays a detective on CSI: Miami ) is a grief-stricken widow haunted by the sea and eternally devoted to her dead husband, singing love songs in a cabaret but eschewing the attention of every man in town. Celia’s daughter Vicky (lovely Emmy Rossum, the Metropolitan Opera singer who played the young Audrey Hepburn in the ABC biography The Audrey Hepburn Story ) deplores the Old World traditions and tries to set Mom up with dates on the Internet. Into their lives boogies Charlie Beck (Jason Isaacs), a professional British gambler banned from U.S. casinos for card-counting. Vicky promises him a date with her mom if he’ll teach her all the tricks of the gaming tables. Thus begins an elaborate, dishonorable seduction based entirely on lies, but greatly enhanced by fresh dialogue, solid performances and the realistic direction of the gifted Dan Ireland, who made an indelible mark with The Whole Wide World , an underrated film that also brought Renée Zellweger to prominence.

History repeats itself, because the best thing about Passionada (a title derived from the traditional Portuguese music called fado ) is Jason Isaacs. This is the dashing actor who stole The Patriot out from under Mel Gibson as the British military zealot who pursued Mr. Gibson’s hero throughout the American Revolution, and whose unforgettable résumé of handsome villains now includes the dark and sinister Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. In his first contemporary romantic leading role, he’s as unique and charismatic as the young Cary Grant of 60 years ago. Working his way into a woman’s heart under false pretenses, then as passionate about proving himself worthy of her trust as a coltish athlete on the way to his first Olympic competition, he is spectacularly appealing. Jason Isaacs is the real deal. Why isn’t he a big star already?

My Stetson’s Off to Open Range