Based on a modern American classic, John Grady Cole and best buddy Lacy Rawlins head south of the Rio Grande in search of ranch work and a purity of life fading from the plains of Texas. What greets them is hardship, love, imprisonment and the glorious vistas of the Mexican wilderness.
Famed novels do not always make the trip to celluloid dignity intact. And while Billy Bob Thornton's attractive, sombre Western doesn't exactly pull up lame, the award-winning book's poetic grandeur never makes it up there on the screen. What does is a lavish, sporadically poignant rites-of-passage flick, which paradoxically feels slow while never giving the plot room to manoeuvre.
The problem may stem from Thornton's demands for a three and a half hour cut; he was denied such indulgence, and there is a sense of crucial elements missing from the ebb and flow of the story. Certainly he's drummed up an austere beauty - less golden sunsets than muddy realism - backed by a surging score from Marty Stuart that smacks of the Old West without resorting to cliché. Damon makes for a noble and handsome protagonist, but he's too rigid and lugubrious to communicate Cole's inner torment and experience. It is left to a terrific Henry Thomas to truly bring life to Ted Tally's drawly, sing-song dialogue, as a young man driven by a moralism way beyond his years.
Throughout their odyssey - directed in a graceful road movie arc of journey and discovery - a spread of characters stumble into a story with variable influence. In a spirited supporting role, Lucas Black is an irresponsible urchin whose impulsive actions ultimately effect all their lives - one of the film's themes is man's slavery to the cruel vagaries of fate. Cole falls for the smouldering daughter (a limp Cruz) of his ranchero boss (Rubén Blades), stirring up all sorts of bother - enough to land him in possibly the least authentic Mexican prison in movie history - which leads him to seek solace from a judge (Bruce Dern, in a role severely reduced from the book). In fact, doom, sadness and no small amount of death will trace his painful trajectory into adulthood. As, naturally, do a great deal of attractive horses.
Hardly the load of old pony we'd been led to believe, there are moments when it touches the heart - particularly in the Cole-Rawlins relationship - but with long tumbleweed-strewn episodes of nothing much at all in between. The going is fair to middling.