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Open Range - I wanted to show the vulgarity of violence and the chaos of it



Feature by: Jack Foley

HE may be playing a no-nonsense gunslinger in his latest movie, Open Range, but Oscar-winning director, Kevin Costner, is similarly no-nonsense, in real-life, when discussing the sometimes thorny issue of his career.

Having been thrust onto Hollywood’s A-list following back-to-backs hits, The Untouchables, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Bodyguard and Dances With Wolves, the star suffered a backlash to subsequent projects, Waterworld and The Postman, which left many questioning whether he would ever rediscover the glory days of old.

With Open Range, however, he appears to have done just that, as the film harks back to an old-fashioned school of film-making, where character takes precedence, and merely serves to heighten the impact of the gunfight which brings things to a close.

Costner stars alongside screen veteran, Robert Duvall, as one of two cowboys who are forced to take on a town’s corrupt sheriff, following a weather-induced stop-off on the nearby open range.

The film is designed, in part, as a homage to some of the traditional westerns of the past, such as High Noon and The Searchers, as well as Duvall’s own Lonesome Dove mini-series, and it is brought to a close by arguably one of the best gunfights in Western history.

Yet while critics are hailing the film as a return to form for Costner, as both director and actor, the star, himself, remains a little perplexed by much of the media which surrounds him.

"I wasn't aware of how The Postman was received," he replied, when asked whether Open Range was an attempt to prove himself, once more.

"I liked Postman, but I'm a realist, and know that there were some that didn’t…. There might be a revisionist view of it someday, with people who look at it for what it is, and how it was done, but I've not been really in step with trying to anticipate what's the smartest move to make, or what's in vogue in terms of the commercial.

"If my career is up against the wall, which I don't believe that it is, but if someone would see it that way, and I can see why they might, they'd just want to go, 'why Kevin, why would you make a Western?'

"I just believe in the genre. I am also a realist. I don't feel I need to make it for the mass audience, although I do believe it could find one.

"I believe it has an entertainment value and I made it for that reason. I didn't make it as a valentine to myself, or to the West. I made it as a really solid piece of entertainment."

Hence, it wasn’t any particular allegiance to the Western that compelled Costner to take to the saddle again, but rather the challenges offered by filming it - given the difficult nature of life at the time.

"I think a movie really has to wrap itself up in entertainment and a Western is a very hard thing to do because most people think of it as a simple art form.

"They even think of the time as being simple when, in fact, I would argue that it is not. We are in a time that is much more simple.

"For example, if you have a problem, a real problem, you can get the police to handle it. Or if you have a problem, you can get a lawyer, or an agent, or a PR person to actually put a spin on a real bad situation, or your behaviour when in fact, in the West, you had to arbitrate your problems yourself.

"You often found yourself in a moral position where it put you outside the law. That is not a cliché, it was fact of life, every day.

"Because we know that powerful people usually control the law, and people who control the law, if they are not incredibly evolved, and most people are not, then they begin to distort the law for their own uses and when they do that, small people get stepped on and those small people either accept it, but then there's always those few, sometimes like a Charlie or a Boss who can't abide that at a certain point.

"And my character, Charlie, who is clearly equipped to actually handle violence, you see early on that he is not sure that starting this violence with these men over cows is really worth it, being a man who has seen a lot of violence, but because his friend can't abide by that they have a relationship that is forged.

"These relationships were forged ever so quietly, as you realise the men don't even know that much about each other.

"They simply know they can trust each other and I think that's where the Western's real appeal is. It's a very refreshing quality to know that the man or the woman to the left or right of you will stand by you in the most critical of times, and I think that will always be the appeal of Westerns."

And when the time comes for these two men to stand together, it is all the more easier for audiences to empathise and root for them, particularly given the intensity of the subsequent battle.

Costner, quite rightly, is being hailed for delivering the type of gunfight which would make Sam Peckinpah proud, yet he remains equally as bullish as to whether this was a deliberate ploy, aimed at redefining violence in the movie.

"The staple of the Western is that you've got to have the gunfight and I promised that I would. I just liked investing in the characters and the story. The plot swings on a very quiet moment, you know, maybe one that's not even recognisable to whoever watches it, which is simply that the open range creates the plot of the movie.

"It gets the wagon stuck, the wagon can't move, the cattle scatter and clearly its going to take five to six days to gather up these animals, which was a historical event.

"The West is not fairy tale, it's what happened, and in doing that, they realised that they are going to have to get supplies, and so when one man leaves to town, that's when the shoe drops, ever so quietly, but it drops and during that time we get to know these characters.

"Hopefully, that's what I like to invest in, who they are and their sense of humour, and also try to create moments of violence.

"But potential violence can be as satisfying as violence. For instance, when the four men appear on the hill, with their faces covered like cowards, they are very threatening; there's the awesome promise of violence at that moment, and in this movie we resist creating a gunfight there, we simply have them evaporate over the hill and by doing that, in a way it's creepier.

"It's creepy when people kind of loom over you, and out of that comes the common sense between the two other characters, that they should go and meet this violence head on, and, of course, they go find him in the trees and I think that the way men arbitrate their problems there is quite interesting.

"I styled that scene a little bit after the Oxbow Incident, where they come upon those horse thieves, and how Robert Duvall takes charge at that particular moment, but I think the threat of violence always existed in the West, simply because men wore guns and that threat existed, and so the shoot out will always be the staple of the Western.

"If you don't have it, you don't really have a Western - you have some other genre. So I did want to put my stamp on the violence."

Costner did, however, want to show ‘the vulgarity of violence’ and the ‘chaos of it’ explaining: "I wanted you to feel the ground between the combatants, because often, if you feel the ground between me and a person against the wall, you can tell the ballet that exists there has a real kind of ugliness to it, and certainly when Charlie kills the man whose holding Sue, he does it at a point blank range, and I kind of wanted to debunk the theory of the hero - that Charlie is willing to shoot somebody in the foot, he's willing to draw first, he's willing to shoot somebody point blank.

"He's even willing to kill a mortally wounded man with the idea that he doesn't want to face him again, but I think what happens is, because we've invested in who Charlie is, as a character, we don't actually hold that against him, we've actually come to realise that he's been trying to tell us who he is."

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