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The Western isn’t something we see a great deal of these days. Although there was a slight revival back in the 1990s with the likes of Unforgiven (1992) and Tombstone (1993), nothing worthy of note has really appeared since. The days of a new John Wayne film every few months have unfortunately long passed. So has the Western really fired its parting shots? Not if Open Range has anything to do with it. This Kevin Costner directed film opened last year to a great deal of critical acclaim, yet turned in only small takings at the box-office. So what, if anything, went wrong with it? It’s time to find out…

Open Range
Film
Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall lead a group of four free grazers. They move from place to place, driving cattle and living off of the land on the open range. Unfortunately, the free grazing profession isn’t a particularly popular one with the local town folk. Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) frequently find themselves on the receiving end of death threats, verbal abuse and pretty much everything in between. Usually, they take it as part of the profession and move on to richer pastures; however, this time the situation is a little more complicated. The local town is run by the ruthless rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and an equally menacing Sheriff played by James Russo. It turns out that they’ve arrested one of Boss’ colleagues and they aren’t going to give him up easily. Boss and Charley head off to confront the sheriff and eventually they reach a reluctant agreement. Their friend Mose is released and together the men head back to the range, but the situation is about to get much worse. Boss and Charley soon find themselves inextricably drawn towards an inevitable showdown with Baxter and co, forced to defend the freedom and values of a lifestyle that is all too quickly vanishing...

Open Range is a beautifully crafted film, and finally a return to form for director Kevin Costner. After the quite awful Waterworld and The Postman – a lot of people were wondering if Dancing with Wolves was a bit of a fluke. It would appear not. Although Open Range runs at a pretty slow, meandering pace throughout, it suits the film down to the ground. It isn’t about intricately crafted gun battles (although it does feature a great one), but rather the characters that inhabit the open range. It’s about four men trying to escape their pasts, and the relationships between each of them. One of the first things that strikes you about this film is the cinematography. How this film wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is anyone’s guess. The scenery is simply jaw dropping at times, with the long sweeping hills, ominous thunderclouds and driving rainstorms that inhabit the Wild West. It’s certainly on a par with Conrad L Halls frequently stunning work on Road to Perdition..

Open Range
The performances here are first rate, and leading the way is the ever-reliable Robert Duvall as Boss Spearman. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by a Duvall performance, and Open Range certainly isn’t going to be the exception to the rule. He settles into the role of Boss like a well-fitted shoe, his small mannerisms bringing the character to life. You genuinely believe that free grazing is his life, and that he’d do anything to defend that life. In many ways, Duvall’s performance outshines the work of Kevin Costner as Charley Wait, but Costner is certainly no slouch either. You can see him battling with his inner-torment throughout, wondering whether or not he can open up himself to the doctor’s sister Sue Barlow (played by the beautiful Annette Benning), or whether he’d just be a burden to her. Special mention should also go to the late Michael Jeter (The Green Mile) as Percy. Although he’s only in the film for five or ten minutes, he brings such a deep, heartfelt presence to the character. This was one of his last performances – he’ll be sorely missed.

Video
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and for the most part the transfer is top notch. The colours are vibrant, with the rich greens of the open range looking particularly spectacular early on. From then on, the picture takes a much darker stance to reflect the circumstances of the film. The transfer doesn’t suffer though - the dark outdoors are handled with a great deal of clarity. Touchstone has done us proud here. However, the curse of edge enhancement does plague this transfer at times. Although it isn’t likely to distract people with smaller televisions, anybody with a television upwards of 32” is likely to notice it on occasion. A shame as this really could have bordered on reference quality at times.  

Open Range
Audio
Touchstone Home Entertainment has put together one of the most impressive DTS mixes that I’ve heard in quite some time. Although the film is far from an action packed one, the sound still pays a crucial role throughout. Kevin Costner has made it clear in recent interviews that he wanted the sound of a gunshot to be as startling in this film, as in real life. He succeeded! The gunshots that frequent Open Range are of an extremely loud nature. It’ll send a shiver down your spine (and probably cracks down your windows!) Great stuff. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is equally impressive, although it lacks the same level of realism in the opening thunderstorm. Whereas the Dolby Digital 5.1 track makes it sound like a thunderstorm – the DTS gives the impression that you’re actually in one. A reference quality track.

Extras
Although Open Range hardly lit the box-office on fire, Touchstone have seen fit to give the film the two disc special edition treatment. Kick starting the extra material is an audio commentary with director Kevin Costner. This is a pretty light-hearted commentary on the whole, although Costner certainly doesn’t skimp on the more meaty aspects of production. He displays a genuine passion for his filmmaking and yet never comes across as an arrogant chap. If anything, he seems to be a pretty honest, generally likeable guy! Well worth a listen. Next up is an eight-part feature called ‘Beyond Open Range’. This is a fascinating insight into the production process from early conception right through to the premiere. After watching so many fluffy promotional features, this makes for a very refreshing change. Costner is brutally honest when things aren’t going so well (he even goes as far as calling a foreign investor for the film a slippery dick!) Each section is presented in full screen with the full runtime being just over an hour.

Open Range
Next up is a twelve-minute featurette entitled ‘America’s Open Range’, which is a historical journey back in time to the real open range of the 1800’s. The feature is narrated by Kevin Costner and provides an interesting, if brief, look at the history of the period. Next we have a decent selection of deleted scenes. There are twelve scenes in total, all of which carry the choice of a Kevin Costner video introduction. Each one is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. The scenes themselves range from small scene extensions to completely new ones. Although most of the scenes were rightly removed form the final cut - the quality of each is actually rather high. Well worth checking these out. The only other feature of any substantial length is entitled ‘Storyboarding Open Range’. The title is pretty self-explanatory really – it looks at how David J Negron Jr used storyboards to assist Kevin Costner throughout different stages of the production. Through narration, David tells us about his role as a storyboard artist and we get plenty of footage of the Open Range storyboards. Ultimately this is a pretty interesting feature, although a tad short at a little over six minutes. The final feature is a music video entitled Broken Wagon. I’m not sure if this was even used for the film in the end – it certainly doesn’t seem to fit that of a Western. The music video itself is presented in full screen and shows a number of clips of the film, as well as some behind the scenes footage. I doubt you’ll want to watch this one more than once!

Open Range
Overall
Open Range is the return to form that Kevin Costner fans have been praying for. The film spins a carefully crafted yarn, and succeeds on almost every level. At times the pacing is a little too slow for my liking, but at the end of the day this is the best Western for a good nine or ten years, so who am I to complain? The DVD that Touchstone has put together is equally impressive. The soundtrack is reference quality and the extra material is refreshingly in-depth and honest. The only slight disappointment here is the quality of the transfer. Although the picture itself is extremely sharp and colourful, the transfer is plagued by huge amounts of edge enhancement. Still, this is only likely to bother those with huge 50” plus screens so Open Range still comes highly recommended from me.


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