Costner plays a veteran of Quantrill's Raiders (the vicious Confederate guerilla gang that launched Jesse James' career) and a former hired gun. For the last decade, he's sought redemption, or at least oblivion, in the empty lands doing hard, honest work as Duvall's loyal partner and friend.
Their free range grazing has tradition and what little law there is on its side, but a grasping rancher who finds it cheaper to employ gunmen (including the corrupt local sheriff) than to buy the land he's monopolizing, has their younger sidekicks shot.
The heroes bury their dead and haul their wounded to the nearest doctor, whose spinster sister (Annette Bening) serves as his nurse. With the nearest federal marshal a week's ride away, Duvall and Costner resolve that, even though they are badly outnumbered because the cowed local citizens are afraid to stand with them in defense of their rights, justice and friendship demand that some killin' be done.
The Western is timely once again. Now that the Bush Administration has decided to go into the nation-building business overseas, it's becoming clear that Americans no long remember much about how nations are built, even our own. Up until about 1970, we at least could learn from the Western film, a genre that, more than anything else, was about nation-building -- the invention of order, justice, representative government, and a society fit for decent women and children.
Cowboy movies were prototypically about the establishing of a legitimate monopoly of violence. As the Old West receded into the distant past, however, Hollywood switched to the cop film genre, which is about maintaining that monopoly. In recent year's, we've come to simply presume the rule of law, an expectation that has ill-equipped us for our stays in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The last movie Costner directed, the overblown but evocative 1997 post-apocalyptic Western "The Postman," was also about nation-building, or, to be precise, rebuilding: a nuclear war survivor takes the first step toward restoring the United States government by delivering the mail. Critics and audiences alike howled with laughter at the very idea.
Costner's ego has taken a beating since "The Postman," and "Open Range" is more modest. He could only raise $26 million, one third as much. Still, you can make a fine movie for $26 million as long as your script doesn't require an explosion every eight minutes.
Costner underlines the appeal of anarchy to men during the panoramic early scenes set on the endless rolling grasslands at the foot of the Rockies. Moreover, living beyond the reach of the law demands more of a man's character -- his courage, honesty, and loyalty -- than does modern life, where the punishment of wrongdoers and enforcement of contracts is delegated to the government. Indeed, the frontier demands more of men than they can be expected to give. "Open Range" recognizes both the sadness and rightness of its passing.
One way Costner saves money is by using actors past their prime, such as the 72-year-old Duvall and the 45-year-old Bening. Duvall has been working non-stop recently, but, not surprisingly considering his age, doing little to add to his much-deserved reputation. Here, though, given a chance to reprise his character from the great "Lonesome Dove" miniseries of 1989, he's wry and authoritative.
Hollywood actresses are generally imagined to be heartless careerists, but a surprising number choose to sacrifice a good part of their 30s -- their peak decade --to having babies. The superhuman Meryl Streep can have four children with barely an interruption in her flow of Oscar nominations, but for a mortal like Bening, the four kids she had with her husband Warren Beatty from 1992 to 2000 permanently denied her a shot at superstardom.
Now 45, Bening seems perfectly cast as the Good Woman who just might civilize the 48-year-old Costner. These two strike me as made for each other, an infinitely better pairing than, say, Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper in "High Noon," but I've given up arguing over whether screen couples have chemistry or not. That appears to be by far the most idiosyncratic aspect of how people react to movies. I think the last movie where everybody agreed the leads had chemistry was "Casablanca."
"Open Range" is rated R, ridiculously. It's really a moderate PG-13. The big shootout isn't terribly gory, the romance is chastely Victorian, and the bad language is restricted to a few appropriately bovine vulgarities. The movie industry put a big push behind "Chicago" in the hopes of revitalizing the musical genre, so why is the MPAA needlessly hanging the damaging R rating on the best oat-burner since "Unforgiven"?