Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening

Director: Kevin Costner
Released: 2003

Mood: If every movie you’ve watched lately has been worse than stepping on a slimey pile of cat barf in bare feet and you need a cinematic gem to remind you why you love Westerns in the first place.


I made the exact same mistake with Open Range that I did with Appaloosa – I sat down to watch what I was hoping would be a mind-blowing Western, only to realize I’d already seen it.


Both are excellent movies. I forgot them both completely. Give me a break!


I’ve been watching Westerns my whole damn life, and that’s a lot of years because I ain’t no spring chicken. I’m not even a summer chicken. I’m more like a fall chicken that resembles a jack o’ lantern toward the end of November, with that barely recognizable face.


I don’t know how a chicken could also be a jack o’ lantern, maybe the face is on its butt.


In case visions of chicken butt-faces didn’t successfully distract you from my failings as a person with a Western review website, please know that Open Range is far from forgettable. It’s actually almost the perfect Western.


photo of the open range DVD


Open Range is based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine, a Western author Kevin Costner had loved growing up. The story is set in 1882, kicking off in the open range of Montana. A small group of cattlemen are driving a herd across the country. One of the men is sent into town for supplies, but he doesn’t come back.


It turns out the town is run by a land baron who owns the local law, and seriously hates “free-grazers”. The cattlemen are ordered to move on, but then pursued.


Although Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley (Kevin Costner) are able to ambush and disarm the men, their partners are simultaneously attacked. One is killed, and the other left for dead. Boss and Charley have to do what’s right, which is righting the wrong and avenging their men.


illustration of a fancy moustache


Here’s the thing about this review – it turned out to be really f*cking boring to write. And that’s because there’s nothing to pick at in Open Range.


Literally everything about this movie just WORKS.


  • The cinematography is masterful: quietly gorgeous on the scenic shots of Alberta range land, but unflinching and without added drama or fuss on the action; Costner hand-picked J. Michael Muro, who had been a cameraman on Dances with Wolves
  • Costner specifically wanted wide shots on the action so that it was real-time quick, none of that slow-mo blockbuster stuff – which is how Open Range landed in the Top 5 Movie Shootouts of All Time according to American Cowboy and a gazillion other sources
  • The costumes are so good that I can’t remember them right after watching – which is how working men’s clothing of that time should be
  • The storytelling is OUTSTANDING from start to finish, with a riveting plot and realistic dialogue
  • The pacing is so on-point that 139 minutes slips by like it’s nothing

And then there’s the acting. From smaller characters with barely two lines to the leads, everyone in Open Range feels like they have a purpose. Everything is carefully intentional.


It wasn’t until I saw Wyatt Earp that I realized Kevin Costner was so much more than just a terrible Robin Hood. Here, he expertly delivers a quiet, sharply observant man who seems like a typical cattleman until you meet his demons – Civil War PTSD.


Costner gives you this kind of practiced restraint right up until the dam bursts in a flurry of violent, messy emotions. Then you watch him pack it all away again. He moves and speaks easily around Duvall’s character, but becomes awkward and visibly hobbled by self doubt around Sue Barlow (Annette Bening). It’s a disarming performance.


Robert Duvall is at the top of his game, too. Apparently Costner only wanted Duvall for the role of Boss, and admitted he probably wouldn’t have made Open Range if Duvall said no. You can see why – the two of them are so natural together, it barely feels like acting. Duvall was so committed to the part that he broke several ribs retraining his horsemanship before filming started.


This is one of my top two Robert Duvall movies, the other being Broken Trail.


The character of Sue Barlow is an awesome strong Western woman, and Annette Bening is what makes her that way.


She’s not just playing a female lead, she’s also embodying what it was to be that kind of woman in that time: intelligent and capable of so much more than she would ever get credit for, judged for not yet being married at her age, hopeful but not desperate, soft but also fiercely brave.


Michael Gambon is a f*cking magnificent bad guy. He’s so commanding that he feels huge in every scene, like he could crush everyone in his fist – and that’s how Denton Baxter would have risen to power and kept that tight grip on the town.


I didn’t doubt for one second that he was a power-hungry asshole who would kill people for their animals eating grass he felt belonged to HIS cattle. He’s really only in Open Range at the beginning and the end, but he makes such an imposing impression that it seems like he was there the whole time.


Michael Jeter is also notable as the subversive and cheeky livery owner Percy. This was Jeter’s last live role; he passed away before Open Range was released.


illustration of a fancy moustache


Like I said, Open Range is pretty much the perfect Western. You’ve got everything you need: a great villain, noble everyman avengers, top-notch action sequences, glorious scenery, and just a hint of romance.


Just don’t get too attached to the dog.


Whatever you’re looking for, this is probably it. And I swear on Tom Selleck’s moustache that I will never again forget that I’ve seen this movie.