Slouching Toward Tombstone 

Kevin Costner bungles a Western.

Costner plays Charley Waite, a free-grazing cattleman with a dark past, whom we first see driving his herd across the prairie with his mentor, Boss, two cowboys and his trusty old dog, Tig (“Still got the heart, not the legs”). When one of their number goes into town to get supplies, he is roughed up by the henchmen of Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), the local cattle baron who virtually owns the town and its sheriff, and who means to run the small band off his spread. Their honor touched, Boss and Charley throw prudence to the wind and resolve to make a stand, and spend the balance of the two-and-a-quarter-hour film preparing to do so. The townsfolk, too, are eager for a chance at the greedy potentate, and when roused, band together against him. When they do, we get something like the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” only rich in slaughter.

The only other complication appears in the form of Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the woman keeping house with the local doctor, whom both sides in this conflict generously shower with work. No longer young, Sue is lovelorn, awaiting “someone gentle and caring,” and, astonishingly, she thinks she has found him in Costner’s Charley, even after she has seen him turn the streets of her town into a shambles. His attraction to her is far more plausible. She represents the love, comfort and stability from which he fears his wild life has exiled him. For him, Sue’s porcelain tea service whispers promises of redemption.

Although many have described the film as an old-fashioned slugfest between good and evil, in fact it relentlessly muddies the moral clarity we might expect from Costner. When the Earps in “My Darling Clementine” find themselves in almost exactly the same fix as Charley’s, they sign on as lawmen and clean up Tombstone. In “Open Range,” however, the heroes resort to pre-emptive thuggery on a steadily escalating scale. (At one point Charley remarks, “Got no problem with killing, Boss. Never have.”) Occasionally Boss tries to validate his and Charley’s violence by drawing scholastic distinctions between “justice” and “vengeance,” or claiming that he is standing up for property rights, but by the time the bullets stop flying, it is hard to say whether or what values of note have been defended.

Such confusions might have been a source of strength, or at least naughty fun, if Costner’s unrelenting earnestness did not smother everything in sight like a thick coat of molasses. Hoping to freight every moment with mythic significance, he barely gives his characters room to breathe. Craig Storper’s limp screenplay compounds the problem as it wavers between Hollywood Westernese (Boss: “One twitch and you’re in hell!”) and chirpy daytime-talk-show banter (Sue: “So, is it marriage that scares you two?”).

Not surprisingly, Duvall best manages to make something of the materials at hand, gamely croaking and cackling in a way that allows some vitality to shine through the script’s screen of clichés. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Bening. Departing from the superb tradition of iron-willed movie frontier women, she plays the part as written, which is to say as a suburbanite unaccountably sundered from her dishwasher. When we see her gently troweling in her garden in a stylish straw hat, we half expect her to look into the camera and extol the merits of her favorite pain reliever.

The grandeur of the finest Westerns often depended on the tragic idea that civilization can be secured only by men whose ferocity the civilized cannot abide; after dispatching evil, the conflicted heroes bid fair to be expelled from the community they have preserved. Shrinking from the unpalatable truths the Western is suited to explore, “Open Range” succeeds only in evoking the ghosts of forebears in whose company it vainly wants to stand. ** S

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