Neither bad nor good, "All the Pretty Horses"
never really gets out of the gate. In many ways, this picturesque Western from "Sling Blade's" Billy Bob Thornton mirrors last year's "Snow Falling On Cedars." The movie is breathtaking to watch, but Thornton's foggy narrative style never captures the novel's sweeping themes of forbidden love and betrayal. Nor does it help matters that star Matt Damon shared more chemistry with "Bagger Vance's" golf balls than he does here with his sexy Spanish co-star, Penelope Cruz. The setting is mainly Mexico and the time is the middle of the 20th century. All the necessary exposition is quickly disposed of under the opening credits: With his grandfather's death in 1949, young John Grady Cole (Damon) finds himself without a home or future after an inheritance dispute. Deciding that Texas is played out, Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) ride for Mexico, where they figure they can find work as "real cowboys," living the life they've always imagined to be their destiny. The buddies wind up south of the border after many beautifully photographed vignettes that add up to very little. Instead, they just hopscotch from one condensed scene from the novel to another without sweeping us up into the journey. Most disappointingly, the film never mines the huge vein of humor that runs through McCarthy's writing. Wisely, screenwriter Ted Tally maintains big chunks of McCarthy's brilliant dialogue, but even their existence is underserved by Thornton's lack of a visual style. Eventually, the two hire on as work hands at the lavish hacienda presided over by Rocha (Ruben Blades). Cole immediately falls for Rocha's saucy daughter Alejandra (Cruz), despite the dangers and despite many warnings from Alejandra's watchful aunt, Alfonsa (Miriam Colon). For reasons that will be clearer to audience members who have read McCarthy's novel than to those struggling with the movie's huge story gaps, Cole and Rollins end up in a Mexican prison. There they hook up again with Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), a teen-age horse thief they met on their way to Mexico. Their fate is not as severe as what awaits Blevins, and after Cole proves his manhood in a prison fight that has more flair than any other scene in the movie, he's released. Ignoring the advice of Rollins, Cole heads out for a final reckoning with Alejandra. Damon is responsive to the physical demands of playing Cole, but unconvincing when it comes to "cowpoke" attitude. He just doesn't look or act like a man who's grown up amidst the dust and ever-present dung of a cattle ranch. And since he fails to strike any sparks with Cruz, selling the movie as a romance is more than suspect. Equally disappointing, Cruz reduces her performance to either sexy, come-hither looks or tearful remorse. While Thomas does his best post-"E.T." work here, the real star of the movie is Black as the horse-thieving Blevins. Proving that his phenomenal performance in Thornton's "Sling Blade" was no fluke, Black is the only actor who captures the attitude and dialect of McCarthy's cowboys. But the bottom line on this lame tale is that the audience has no vested interest in the characters, their situation or their sacrifice. Yes, this wannabe epic Western is gorgeous to look at, but what "All The Pretty Horses" needed more was a stronger hand at the reins.