Four cattle drivers led by Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his righthand man of a decade or more Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) are bringing their herd across the plains of the Old West, as they have done for years. However, after a heavy storm one night they decide they will need more supplies, so the cook, Mose (Abraham Benrubi), is sent to the nearest town to secure what they need. This is what heralds a challenge to their way of life, as after a couple of days it becomes clear Mose is not coming back any time soon and Boss and Waite leave their teenage helper Button (Diego Luna) behind while they investigate exactly what is going on...
And what is really going on? Why, it's another resurgence of the western, of course. Ever since the Heaven's Gate fiasco, there have been films released that supposedly mark the return of the genre, whether it was Silverado (also featuring Costner), Unforgiven, Tombstone or the 3.10 to Yuma remake, so many in fact that it makes you wonder whether the western has ever been away. Certainly they hadn't been making the money they once had, but there was evidence that there was still an audience for this kind of thing, hence the cult following for an effort like Open Range.
If there's anyone who would like to see a revival it would be Costner, as he had done his level best to bring such films back into popularity over the years, directing as he did the highly successful Dances with Wolves and the, erm, not so successful science fiction-but-not-really The Postman. So it makes sense that he would have as his lead here Duvall, who might not be automatically thought of as a star of westerns, but a quick scan of his filmography showed he was happy to be associated with them, particularly in his earlier years: he appeared with John Wayne, dammit.
So with a solid cast of capable hands and script by Craig Storper from Lauran Paine's novel that understands the appeal of the themes and setpieces, why does Open Range fall a little short? Perhaps it's that very reverence which makes the drama look unwilling to take risks; Costner's film was compared to Unforgiven by some, but where the Clint Eastwood film had something to say about modern day violence, here it's more about the restrictions on freedom that bring men to fight for what they believe, which might be an up to date concern, but comes across as old-fashioned through and through with this handling.
The troubles our two heroes find when they reach the town are all down to the greed and gangsterism of a few who hold sway over the many - the many who have acquiesced to the strong armed will of these lawmakers. Mose has been beaten up and placed in jail on flimsy charges, but Boss and Charley realise that it's because of their status as "free-grazers", i.e. they don't have to answer to the leaders around these here parts, that they are being victimised. Slowly but surely the bad guys led by Baxter (Michael Gambon with an Irish accent) force Boss and his men to give up their cattle and threaten their lives, but this situation is a two way street and our heroes are not giving up without a fight. Open Range is exciting enough to almost overlook the heavy streak of sentiment running through it, from Charley's patience-testing romance with doctor's sister Sue (Annette Bening) to the Michael Kamen's sweeping score and a few too many misty-eyed gazes at the landscape, but Costner knew his audience, if not how to win over fresh converts.