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A recurring theme in Westerns has been the lawlessness
of the frontier as competing interests tried to gain control of natural resources up for
grabs in newly developing territories. Federal law enforcement was stretched thin, so
towns were dependent on local sheriffs or marshals, presuming there was one, and, if so,
presuming his honesty, competence, and ability to control the unleashed ambitions of the
unscrupulous types as much attracted to the potential wealth of the West as the honest and
right-thinking pioneers. The inability to rely on authority to enforce the law left
individuals needing to take the law into their own hands.
Classic films like The Big Country (competition for watering rights), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (law vs. cattle thieves), and Shane (homesteaders vs. cattlemen) found their dramatic momentum in such conflicts, as does Kevin Costner's new opus, Open Range, which pits grazers (cattlemen who rootlessly grazed their cattle in an area and then moved on) against ranchers staking claims to grazing lands. "Boss" Spearman (Robert Duvall) is grazing his herd with the assistance of Charley Waite (Costner), a Civil War veteran who learned to kill in the war and made a living at it afterwards, a history that troubles him and which he is trying to put behind him.
The rancher is Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), an Irish immigrant who is adamantly opposed to the freegrazers and will go to any length to drive them off. He also has the town marshal (James Russo) in his pocket as well as a thuggish group of henchmen. A showdown between the two sides, a shootout in town, is the inevitable climax of the conflict. Wanna guess who wins?
There's little more to the plot than that: basic economic conflict established, then resolved by force. What Craig Storper's screenplay (based on a novel by Lauran Paine) tries to do, during an overextended two hours and twenty minutes, is to flesh out the characters, giving them backstories which explain why Spearman and Waite are the way they are. It also establishes their fundamentally principled behavior--which doesn't prevent them from shooting men point blank without a moment's hesitation.
Add in a romantic subplot (Waite falls for the local doctor's sister), some standard Big Sky western scenery, and a cute dog (or two), and the package is being hailed as Costner's redemption as a director after the torpid The Postman and the unmitigated disaster called Waterworld. Redemption ought not to come quite so easily; Open Range, while surely an improvement over its predecessors, is a decidedly mixed bag.