Scene Dissections: Open Range

Open Range is a beautiful movie, but it is also very slow.  Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall — two guys who should be playing cowboys way more often, if it were up to me — are free range cattle ranchers named Charley and Boss.  During a cattle drive, they and their team run afoul of a local cattle baron who don’t like these guys grazing on what they believe is their property.

Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, and Diego Luna: three guys who need to be playing cowboys full-time.

After a few attempts at spooking them, the bad guys end up killing one of their party and wounding the youngest member, who is played by a young Diego Luna.  The violence happens off-screen, as not to upset delicate sensibilities.

The men bring the injured Diego to the nearby town.  They are taken in by Annette Bening, a sympathetic local and sister of the town’s doctor.

What follows is a series of several drinks.  Costner and Duvall first have some coffee.  Then they head down to the bar to have some alcohol.  They return to Bening’s house to have some tea.  There’s some confrontations there, but most of the time it’s delightful.

Like I said, it’s a slow movie.  Costner, who directed, lingers on the lovely western vistas and revels in slow, personal moments.  An elderly cowboy solemnly reads a letter that Charley wrote in the event that he doesn’t survive the upcoming gunfight.  Duvall spends time in a shop looking for candy, only to find that it’s melted by the time of the showdown.  We’re being set up for perhaps an artsy, downbeat conclusion.

And then… this happens.

My immediate reaction: “Where THE HELL did that come from?”

You know what that’s so great?  The other gunmen were clearly watching the same movie.  Costner is supposed to maybe have a few cross words with the guy who killed his friend, and then they talk a bit about what the fight is all about.  Then they take a few paces back, you get a few tense scenes and someone outdraws someone else.

Costner, playing a former civil war soldier who’s now driving cattle, doesn’t see it that way.  He sees that he’s outnumbered.  He also knows he’s a better shooter.

When Costner first that first bullet in his opponent’s forehead, our reaction and the gunmen’s reaction are synced.  We’ve been lulled into complacency by a quiet, contemplative film.  And as we and the gunmen are trying to process what we’ve just seen… Costner squeezes off a few more bullets and takes down everyone else in that initial encounter.

It’s at that moment that we remember that this movie wasn’t a soft PG-13 as you were led to believe up until this point.  It was rated R.

By the time the gunmen have their wits about them to try to fire back, they’re incapacitated.  The superior numbers are now on the defense, with Costner out gunning and out maneuvering all comers.  The movie switches from scenic vistas to tight claustrophobic spaces. The previously steady camerawork is now jittery with quick cuts to match the state of confusion, as if the movie had been directed by Terrence Malick and Paul Greengrass had just now forcefully grabbed the camera from him.

Later, Costner subverts our expectations again.  There a tense scene where a gunman has Bening hostage.  After a run through the alley, Costner comes face to face with the guy.  The gunman has Bening in one arm, and the other with his gun trained on the hero.

We’ve all seen this played out before, right?  We expect, perhaps, Costner to tell the guy to take it easy and that there’s no need for anyone to get hurt.  Maybe the bad guy shouts something back and cocks his gun, perhaps even squeezing the first shot.  Maybe Costner ducks out of the way, distracts the bad guy so he lets go of Ms. Bening and then saves they day.

Nope!

Costner’s character is cool as ice.  While the enemy gunman is paralyzed with fear, he just takes the shot at close range while Being is still being held hostage.  The shot frees Bening.  Costner then finishes the job by firing a couple more bullets.

The expression on Bening and the bystanders are priceless.  It’s partly shock, partly fear at the cold killing machine standing before them… but also confusion, because this isn’t how things are supposed to go.