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 had 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 three — are all stories of righteous heroes upholding just principles in volatile frontier societies. Added to which his performances for Lawrence Kasdan, in Silverado and 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 to camp in a timely fashion, 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 about 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 that 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.
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.
American movies, after all, don’t do ordinary very well — and ordinary has long been Pekar’s stock and trade. Set in such unspectacular locales as a grocery-store checkout line or the V.A. hospital where Pekar worked a “day job” as a file clerk from 1966 until his 2001 retirement, his autobiographical comics pay tribute to commonplace struggles and the ugly, inevitable disappointment to which they lead. These are comics steeped in the knowledge that you can live out your days without ever getting what you think you deserve. (Whereas most movies, by selling us on a completely contrary view of reality — one in which adversities are overcome at every turn — perpetrate one of the great white lies of our time.) Yet “our man,” as Pekar aptly refers to himself and his fictional alter egos, soldiers on, down but not out, determined to make something meaningful out of his receding hairline, raspy voice and a flabby physique that prompts him to comment, “Now there’s a reliable disappointment.” Pekar may not look like the indomitable superheroes that are most comics’ part and parcel, but in his own odd way he is one — the grumbling avatar of the common man’s frustrated hopes and dreams.
In the American Splendor movie that has finally been made, Pekar is sometimes played by himself, sometimes by the brilliant character actor Paul Giamatti (who wriggles and squirms his way into Harvey-ness as though it were a second skin) and sometimes by a black-and-white, two-dimensionally animated drawing that pops up to comment on the action. And it’s our great good fortune, and Pekar’s, that this movie — which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, followed by the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes — is as true to the dyspeptic spirit of its source as anyone could have imagined. Maybe it’s because they’ve never made a narrative (or, as the case may be, semi-narrative) feature before that the husband-and-wife documentary team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini seem to find the raw materials of filmmaking so fresh and stimulating, innumerable in their potential configurations. They’re not the least bit bound by biopic conventions, nor by the idea of making Pekar out to be anything other than exactly what he is: the poet laureate of the depressed, unfulfilled life.
Yet, in dramatizing Pekar’s life both before and during the American Splendor days — by showing us his fateful meeting with the illustrator Robert Crumb (superbly mimicked by James Urbaniak), his offbeat courting of his third wife, Joyce Brabner (beautifully interpreted by Hope Davis), and his brave battle against lymphoma in the 1990s — they also show us something more, something Pekar himself (judging from his latest panels, featured in Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly and this past Sunday’s New York Times) may only just be coming to realize. They show us not just the hazards and battles, but the profound rewards that have come from Pekar’s forking over of his life to creative endeavor. They show us how sharing his prodigious pessimism with the rest of the world has probably brought him the closest to peace and happiness in this life that a hipster-grouch like Pekar can ever expect to get. Which, when you think about it, isn’t so ordinary at all.
OPEN RANGE | Directed by KEVIN COSTNER Screenplay by CRAIG STORPER, based on the novel by Lauran Paine | Produced by DAVID VALDES, COSTNER, JAKE EBERTS | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide
AMERICAN SPLENDOR | Directed by SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN & ROBERT PULCINI Screenplay by BERMAN, PULCINI | Produced by TED HOPE | Released by HBO Films and Fine Line Features | At Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex