Open Range

Of the 10 films in the past decade that Kevin Costner has starred in, only two have recouped their budget at the box office, and those only barely. (“Message in a Bottle” cost $30 million and made $53 million; “Tin Cup” cost $45 million and made $54 million.) After several successes early on, his career since “The Bodyguard” (1992) has consisted almost exclusively of flops.

Now, you can come up with any number of explanations for this, but the most sensible, obvious one is that the man simply cannot act. He is wooden and passionless. This has worked for the similarly challenged Keanu Reeves in the “Matrix” films, because that role needs a certain amount of detachment and obliviousness. But Costner keeps insisting on playing damaged, grieving men, or men with painful histories — characters he just isn’t equipped to play convincingly. He ought to be cast as corpses, or as furniture, not as people with complex emotions.

I bring it up because Costner’s blazing mediocrity is the only thing keeping “Open Range” from being a four-star, grade-A movie. He plays a cowboy in 1882, but everytime he says something like “nigh on 10 years” or “rustle up some grub,” I am pulled out of the film and reminded that I am watching not a real person, but an actor badly impersonating a real person.

Costner’s performance is made to seem even more acutely bland when it is compared to that of Robert Duvall; such a comparison is inevitable, because they are in almost every scene together. Duvall plays Boss Spearman, an old coot of a cattleman who, with Costner’s Charley Waite and two hired hands, leads a herd of free-grazing cattle across the American West. Duvall, who at 72 is as spry and indefatigable as many actors 25 years younger, is a force of nature as Boss. He exudes quiet determination, a certain resignation to the vagaries of frontier life, and a spark of hope for the future. There is no crack in the facade, no sign Duvall is acting; he simply IS Boss Spearman.

Boss and Charley’s two hired hands are Button (Diego Luna), a young Mexican boy they rescued from a beggar’s life in Texas, and Mose (Abraham Benrubi), a giant teddy bear of a man who never hurt anybody. While in town to pick up supplies, Mose runs afoul of the local sheriff (James Russo), who is under orders from the town’s REAL boss, wealthy rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), to give free-grazers like Boss and company as much trouble as possible.

Baxter is a new breed of cattleman, the kind who build ranches rather than leading the herd all over the land and letting them eat wherever they want. Boss is of the old school. He isn’t breaking any laws in free-grazing, but this is the Old West, and laws aren’t always a local lawman’s first priority, especially when he’s in the pocket of a powerful businessman.

Some violence occurs, and it becomes necessary for Boss and his crew to leave the cattle out on the range and head into town in search of justice. Charley, a former Civil War sharpshooter and hired gun, sees little difference between justice and vengeance, but Boss, who wears kindliness and gentility beneath his frontiersman exterior, is wiser.

Costner’s direction, like his acting, is minimalistic; with the directing, though, that’s what the film needs. It’s quiet and understated, with an elegiac (but not too somber) feel. Events simply occur; they are not heralded with fanfare, catchy editing or a loud musical score. The most pivotal action occurs with no music at all, in fact, and only as much editing as is necessary to tell the story.

The film has a 10-minute resolution following the climax, and it is there that Costner’s low-level performance becomes especially problematic. Up to that point, Boss has been so much more interesting than Charley that we believe the film is about him. Now comes the denouement, when we realize Costner thought Charley was the focus. Indeed, Craig Storper’s script (based on the novel by Lauran Paine) gives clues this was the intention all along. Charley has a speech early on detailing his questionable past, and had this been delivered with some level of commitment on the part of the actor, it may have resonated enough to keep Charley at the forefront of our concerns, not the rear.

In many ways, “Open Range” recalls the anti-violence message of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992). It certainly hearkens back to the old Westerns, albeit it with bloodier violence (that being the point, of course: When a man gets shot, he really does bleed, contrary to what John Wayne films may have suggested). Fittingly, the romantic subplot involving Charley and the town doctor’s assistant Sue (Annette Bening) feels obligatory; women always seemed like afterthoughts in the Westerns of yesteryear. It doesn’t seem like a liability here so much as an homage.

Costner aside, it is a very nice film, eminently watchable and praiseworthy. Old-fashioned things like honor and trust are at play, and we as an audience are hopefully introspective enough to realize that when it comes to film entertainment, we, like Charley, often see little difference between justice and vengeance.

B (2 hrs., 19 min.; R, some mild profanity, a lot of gunplay and blood.)