Thursday, December 31, 2015

ReWatch: Open Range

2003, Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) -- DVD

"Those of us with the knack was made into a special squad," says Charlie Waite, Kevin Costner's freegrazer character, when talking about his past. He is a man with a terrible past, a man who joined the army and discovered a talent for killing. But that was then; he put his past behind him and joined with an honourable free ranging rancher named Boss Spearman. His past still haunts him.

Charlie Waite is the classic anti-hero that became popular in the late 90s and started to fade out in recent years. We are always presented with the anti-hero during the time when he is forced to do death for the greater good, when he is doing right by people who need his skills. We don't see them when death was their mistress, when they chose the wrong side, when they did what was the easiest thing for them to do. We don't get the chance to be horrified by them, the way they are often horrified by themselves. But enough is always related so we get that hesitation, that worry that maybe the beast is still inside the reformed man.

I often think about our fondness for the anti-hero, in pop culture like comic books and games. It says something about the darkness in our own souls, how we see great heroes defeat and arise from that darkness. In any small way we fear our own failings, when we see a man rise above his great ones, to become a hero, we see that potential in ourselves. Or maybe it's just me. When I was young, I saw myself as the hero, the Paladin who would always do right when presented with the hard path. Age points out the naivete in that. While I am in no way as dark as an anti-hero, I can too quickly take the easy path instead of the right one. And if Charlie Waite can do right, maybe then so can I.

Charlie and Boss come into Harmonville with their herd of cattle and headlong into the brutal henchmen of the local rancher. Freegrazers come along with their herds of cattle to feed off land not yet owned by others -- to graze off the free land. They are not popular and the powerful rancher makes sure they know. Boss Spearman is not one to easily back down, but it costs him the life of one of his men and almost another, Button the 16 year old kid played by a young Diego Luna. So, now Charlie and Boss have to do what comes next for honourable men.

This is classic cowboy. Laws are about what is right and wrong but lawmen are as often wrong as they are right. Spearman may not be the law but he knows what is right and how he has to do right by his hurt men. It was never a question for Charlie, as he always does what Boss tells him and he also has his own vengeance to enact -- they shot his dog. You never kill a man's dog. Ask John Wick. But this familiar role is coming down hard on Charlie, who probably doesn't expect to die but expects many many others to die around him, probably Spearman. He has also become sweet on Sue, the doctor's sister and doesn't want her to see what he is under his cowboy gear. But what must be done, must be done.

The fight is both brutal and classic cowboy movie. Many shots go awry but Charlie is methodical. He doesn't get hit, taking down those he recognizes have aim very quickly. The one actual gunslinger, Butler, the man who shot Charlie's friend and Charlie's dog, Tig gets a bullet between the eyes before he can finish his sentence. Charlie isn't waiting for high noon and drawing guns. He is killing.

Cute note. Butler is played by Kim Coates, just another of many recognizable Canadian actors in the  movie, but in Sons of Anarchy, his character's name is Tig. That he killed a dog named Tig in the movie made me grin.

The other note of this movie is how the hero gets the girl. But Sue is no girl. Sure, she is a handsome woman (Annette Bening) but she is no young thing, age and the frontier having made her tired and pragmatic. This is a story of love not known these days; they will get together because they are attracted to each other and because, well, nobody will have either of them. Charlie fears how she will react to who he was, who he has had to become again. But Sue has the maturity here, the strength, for she sees who he is NOW and she is fine with that. Costner and Bening play these scenes beautifully, balancing the gentleness and resignation so well.

This is a Kevin Costner movie, not one of his grand epics that marked his other directorial endeavours. I always forget he directed it. I am surprised he got it made, after the abject failure of The Postman. And he hasn't done anything since. I wish he had done more, more small movies focused on notes he is obviously fond of.