by Brad Nelson 1/7/14
Despite the big skies and big shoot-outs, this movie comes at you in more of a whisper. This is considered part of Robert Duvall’s western trilogy, including Lonesome Dove and Broken Trail, both of which are outstanding series.
Duvall and Kevin Costner are driving their own herd of cattle out on the open range. They are just two cowpokes making an honest, if humble, living. The song “Don’t Fence Me In” would have been appropriate. But there are some people ’round these parts who don’t abide by freegrazers, such as the nasty kingpin cattle rancher, Denton Baxtor, played by Michael Gambon. And he has a weak and ignoble sheriff in his back pocket, played with much distaste by James Russo.
The problem starts when one of Duvall’s hired hands (he’s the boss) gets in a ruckus in a nearby town and is jailed. Duvall and Costner have no idea what has happened, so head into town to find him. The rest of the plot unfolds from there.
This is an unusual Western in that it is not driven by larger-than-life John Wayne figures and moments. These two cowboys are convincing as real people, not icons. Realism is the watchword. Instead of scene after scene of patched-together Western cliches, you get moments of everyday cowboy life with a smattering of plain wisdom as the homespun flies between Duvall and Costner. But there are some good old-style Western gunfights and barroom confrontations, for sure.
But the fun, even the charm, of this movie is getting to know these two main characters. The movie starts, cold turkey, by picking up both Duvall and Costner somewhere out on the trail driving their cattle. You know nothing about them and piece together these men’s histories and characters as you go along. Neither is loquacious. And it is their understated homespun and blunt matter-of-factness that is the meat of this picture. You feel like pulling up an extra chair around the campfire with them and spending some time.
Annette Bening eventually comes in as the love interest. But she is true to this film as well, eliciting a performance that makes her into a person rather than a caricature. This is a movie meant for quiet and attentive viewing. It’s not one to sit around and back-slap your buds over a few beers. This isn’t a think piece, but neither is it the typical mindless hyper-kinetic movie of today that is all noise, no brain.
Costner plays Costner again, but that is no big surprise. But he does play believably, and with some depth, the haunted Charley Waite who has a dubious past. And Duvall is Duvall, playing a character not dissimilar to the cowboy he plays in Lonesome Dove or Broken Trail. But in each case, he plays a man who is deeply rooted in his way of life. He’s kind, even gentle, but can switch into ass-kicking mode at a moment’s notice. He’s definitely the type who speaks softly (if bluntly) and carries a big six-shooter.
This is more of a dialogue-based film and might not be for those with attention deficit disorder, especially concerning a movie that runs for two and a quarter hours. But if you do watch this, watch it in HD if you can. The cinematography is superb. It puts you there. And that is the secret and magic to the performance of Duvall. You believe him. He puts you there.