“We come for justice, not vengeance.
Now them is two different things.”
“Not today they ain't.”
Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) are free range cowboys—those who don't own land, instead allowing their stock to graze across the open prairie as they drive them to market. Despite their constant irascibility, the friendship between Charley and Boss is unbreakable, their code of honor toward each other unwavering. Along with Button and Mose, they bed their herd down for a night outside Harmonville. Boss sends Mose into the small town to get supplies. When he doesn’t return, Boss and Charley head into the town to find out why. They locate Mose beaten, arrested, and locked in the jail run by the corrupt Sheriff Poole. Mose is accused of fighting with the men of tyrannical kingpin rancher, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). Charley and Boss rush Mose to the local doctor, where Charley unexpectedly finds himself drawn to the beautiful Sue Barlow, the doctor’s sister (Annette Bening).
Denton, a land baron who despises open grazers, uses his power to turn the town against the outsiders. Boss and Charley do everything they can to extradite themselves from the situation, but Denton eventually pushes them too far—forcing Boss and Charlie to take a stand. With his history as a deadly gunfighter, Charley is quicker to accept the unavoidable violence than the levelheaded Boss, but even Boss realizes a showdown is unavoidable. The battle when it comes, is more than a clash between white hats and black hats, it is a war over a way of life, a defence of the disappearing freedoms and values of the America, which Boss and Charley believe in and love.
As the film’s director, Kevin Costner wisely slots himself into the position of second lead behind Robert Duvall. Disappearing into the character of Boss, Duval delivers his powerful emotions via tone and intonation of the dialogue rather than facial expressions. Annette Bening brings an adult gravitas to her part, which plays well off of Costner’s tentative overtures toward her.
While utilizing a well-worn cattle drive/range war story, Open Range rises above those Western tropes. One of the many reasons is the mature romance developed between Costner and Bening. Without showing a lot of flesh or overt passion, the charm of the relationship between the two characters of a certain age shines realistically. Not a lot is said, but not a lot needs to be said, and the spark is there for all to see. Costner seals the deal with the final shoot-out. Like the romance between Charley and Sue, it is slow to develop, but when it comes, it is with all guns blazing. However, Costner masterfully choreographs the sequence, using wide angle shots to overview the action of the many characters all caught up in individual, concurrent, gun battles.
The story takes place in an unspecified setting, but in his role as director, Costner insisted on finding landscapes where, as he puts it, "You couldn't see a fence, road, or another person." The location he chose in Canada was so far from civilization, forty thousand dollars of the film’s budget was spent to build a road to get there. A further million dollars went to build a town from scratch as Costner couldn’t find a real town he felt suited the film.
Open Range was based on the 1990 novel Open Range Men by well-regarded Western wordslinger Lauran Paine. The author of almost a thousand books, Paine wrote eight hours a day, seven days a week, for most of his life.