Driving cattle across the plains of America, Charlie Waite (Costner) and Boss Spearman (Duvall) live a free existence in tune with nature. But violence intrudes into their lives when they come up against Baxter (Gambon), the top man in a prairie town.
Kevin Costner is an easy man to knock. The blow-dried mullet he wore in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and the windy pomposity he injected into The Postman certainly count against him. But it's the good Kevin who stands in front of and behind the camera in Open Range. The film is as complete a return to the traditional Western as fans of the horse opera could have hoped for.
Sure, there's more than a touch of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in its story of an essentially good man forced against his better nature to reawaken the violent spirit that lurks inside him. And the animosity between the farmer and the cowboy - here taken to an evil, lawless extreme by Michael Gambon - is as familiar a Western device as a six-shooter and a ten-gallon hat. But it's the very familiarity of these elements that makes Open Range such an unmissable event for those who love cinema in its most essential form.
The pace is slow - perhaps too slow for an audience weaned on gunplay inspired by cinema from the Far East rather than the Wild West - but Costner is a patient man, and he knows that good things come to those who wait. His direction is leisurely, but not loose. He takes time to set up the core relationship between his character, Charlie, and Boss Spearman (Duvall) so that a lifetime's worth of friendship can be seen to pass between them in a single look.
That father-son/teacher-pupil connection will fuel the action scenes that come later, when abstract notions of bravery and heroism are made more affecting for the audience because of the love and respect these two men have for each other. During the climax, Costner emphasises the toe-to-toe nature of the gunfight, as each shot hits like a heavyweight punch and roars like thunder.
As events escalate from a personal slight to physical violence, then on to murder and revenge, Costner concentrates the film's emotional content into small details which nevertheless take on huge significance for each character. For Charlie Waite and Boss Spearman, to be told that they are no longer allowed to roam the country is tantamount to taking away their sense of freedom.
They are fighting for their livelihood and, indeed, their lives. As part of this 'kill or be killed' scenario, Costner the actor introduces a keener, more credible undercurrent of darkness into his performance than we're accustomed to seeing. This is softened - but, again, with an emotionally credible approach - in Charlie's romance with doctor's sister Sue Barlow (Bening).
Even as the characters are being observed in close-up, the landscapes they populate are presented as epic backdrops. Given the traditional genre-centred thrust of the film, the red dust and wind-sculpted rock formations of John Ford's Monument Valley are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, it's lush green hills, flowers and sunsets that mark a fertile ground for this Western. At times, Costner's wide vistas almost stretch beyond the limits of the cinema screen.
Driven by character and moving along at a steadily precise pace, Open Range is proof that Costner, for one, is content to make 'em like they used to. A return to Western in its pure, cinematic form.