American Splendors

Kevin Costner and Harvey Pekar deliver the goods

Outside of Clint Eastwood, no modern film star has remained more stubbornly committed to making Westerns—or had more luck at getting them made—than Kevin Costner. And Costner's case is all the more remarkable in that he came to the genre in a moviemaking era that deemed Westerns commercially unviable. His three films as director—the naive Dances With Wolves, the disastrous The Postman, and now, Open Range, easily the best of the threeare all stories of righteous heroes upholding just principles in volatile frontier societies. Added to which his performances for Lawrence Kasdan, in Silveradoand in the unfairly maligned Wyatt Earp, make it clear that the Western has been very good to Kevin Costner, and he to it.

Based on a novel by the late Lauran Paine, Open Range begins with a team of cattle drivers—Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Costner), Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and a kid known only as "Button" (Diego Luna)—framed against a threatening late-summer sky. When the storm passes, they send Mose down into the nearest town to purchase supplies. When Mose—a good-natured hulk of a man who "never starts fights, he only finishes them"—fails to return, Boss and Charley set off to retrieve him. Maybe Mose got into a card game; maybe his horse broke down. Or maybe Mose is in jail, having gotten into a brawl with three hands employed by a big-time local rancher (Michael Gambon). Maybe, around these parts, "freegrazers" like Boss, Charley and Mose are looked upon as unfavorably as were the Indians back when there still were Indians to be looked upon.

One gaze into Boss' weary, unforgiving eyes and we realize we're witnessing the end of an era—the great, free expanse of the West being gobbled up not by cattle, but by private landowners staking claims based more on force of will (and gunpowder) than on legitimate entitlement. Open Range's riders have been down this road before, but somehow this time is different; here, in this town called Harmonville, they've reached the end of the line. And any good Western fan will know, that means that Boss, Charlie, Button and Mose will have to stand their ground, like the homesteaders in Shane, no matter how outnumbered and outgunned they may be. Such are the grave inevitabilities of the freegrazer lifestyle.

There are some very fine performances in Open Range, not least from Annette Bening as the unmarried sister of the town doctor, the lines of fatigue in her face tattooed as deeply as those of menace are in Gambon's. Costner's direction is, for the first time, understated; it delves only occasionally into the sentimental (his aesthetic Achilles' heel) and really springs to life in an excitingly staged shootout marked by plosive, startling violence. (Which almost but not quite forgives/makes up for the tinny, syrupy Michael Kamen score.) But there's no question that the film belongs to Duvall—Costner has even ceded top billing to him—whose impeccable cragginess is only a few degrees less great here than it was in Duvall's own weird vanity project, Assassination Tango, earlier this year. I'm not sure that Duvall is any more convincing as an aged range-rider than he was as a top-tier hit man with a dance fetish, but I am sure it doesn't matter. What hooks you is his sheer force of presence: He is at a point now in his career where he can manage to turn every performance he gives into a deeply felt rumination on the process of growing old.

In order to produce Open Range on his own terms (or, perchance, to make it at all), Costner had to raise independent financing, while Disney, the movie's American distributor, signed on only later. Given his recent track record, it's no wonder that Hollywood wouldn't be clamoring to be in the Kevin Costner business, especially when the project on the table is a two-hours-plus Western in which the only major character under the age of 40 spends most of the movie laid up on a doctor's operating table. Yet it's that very old-fashionedness that makes the movie. For here is a Western without irony or innovation, without any of the overt efforts toward "revisionism" we've come to expect even from Eastwood—a movie that waxes elegiac about the end of the West, but remains sure that cowboys and cattle and ramshackle frontier towns will live on in perpetuity at the cinema.


American Splendor

The dangerous thing about a movie based on Harvey Pekar's American Splendor is that it might bring Pekar—and his long-running adult/underground comic—too much into the spotlight. At the very least, it risks turning him (à la Larry Flynt and Hunter Thompson) into a superficial icon of un-cool, a rebel without a context. (And it's something that Pekar nearly did himself during his increasingly histrionic appearances on Late Night With David Letterman in the 1980s.) This is what most movie biographies do, after all, in their rush to condense complex, unwieldy human lives into something that can be digested in less than two hours. Which may well explain why it's taken some two decades (and many sputtering, failed attempts) for an American Splendor movie to reach the screen.

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