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Once a staple of Hollywood, the western is nearly a lost genre. Every so often one rears its head, like Open Range, directed by and starring Kevin Costner, and featuring Robert Duvall and Annette Bening.

The Movie

Costner's western gets a surprisingly good DVD
Costner’s western gets a surprisingly good DVD

Released in 2003 to little fanfare, Open Range hit theaters like an indie movie: quietly but with good word-of-mouth. It tells the story of two “freegrazer” cowboys, Charlie and Boss (Costner and Duvall). They are cattle drivers who make use of the wide-open space of the west (with Canada standing in for America) before barbed wire parceled it into little pieces.

Costner sets up a rugged, idyllic life for the cowboys in a gorgeous, lush valley before the plot kicks in. Charlie and Boss travel with two hired hands and a dog. An ominous group who don’t like freegrazers using their land threatens Charlie and Boss. One of their hands is jailed on a trumped-up charge, and in the time it takes to rescue him there is a violent confrontation in the wilderness, ending in death.

Charlie and Boss find some friends in town, notably a doctor and a nurse (Bening). But the town is run by the landowners who killed their friend. In true western style, the plot reaches its climax at the big gunfight at the end.

In spite of its traditional-sounding plot, Open Range feels like a different kind of western. The protracted opening of the cowboys in their lush valley is a slow-paced poem, not a violent comic book. Unexceptional setbacks — like a stuck wagon or a flood in the middle of the little town — provide a detail and texture the stereotypical western is too busy to notice. Even the gunfight takes on a new visual style as shot cowboys fly back with the horrific force of a bullet, instead of gently falling over backwards.

DVD Extras

Open Range was not a box office giant, so one might expect the DVD to include the usual extras, and nothing else. Instead, it seems much more effort was put into the DVD than into theatrical marketing. The result is a surprisingly good DVD from Touchstone.

Disc 1 includes the film, plus an audio commentary by Kevin Costner. In the commentary, Costner works without a script. He mentions favorite scenes, difficult days, and he thanks his performers, particularly Duvall, Bening, and Michael Jeter, who died shortly after production.

Most unscripted audio commentaries are rambling and uninteresting, but Costner’s is better than most. He talks openly about deciding where to spend his budget (the town and the flood). He talks sincerely about his admiration for the people he worked with, and not just perfunctorily, but with deep gratitude. Most of all, you get a sense that Costner took this movie very seriously, and he takes the DVD presentation seriously too.

Disc 2 includes America’s Open Range, a Ken Burns-style photographic video documentary narrated by Costner. It also includes deleted scenes, Storyboarding Open Range, and a mediocre music video made from behind-the-scenes footage.

Best Supplement

There is one outstanding feature on disc 2, however, that really makes Open Range a very good DVD. Beyond Open Range is a making-of documentary. It’s long, but it’s always interesting. It covers the whole process, from pre-production to opening-night galas. Sometimes the documentary speaks for itself, but occasionally Costner comes on-mic and narrates, like one would a home movie.

The documentary grabs your attention right up front with Costner talking about a “piece of shit” producer who strings him along. There’s footage from Costner’s frozen and snowy trips to Canada to choose a location for the movie, (which will be shot in the spring, when the valley looks completely different). He speaks about the pain of having to cut actors, sometimes not because of any lack of talent, but because maybe they look too much like someone else. (Costner’s own career got off to a rocky start — he played the deceased friend in The Big Chill, a part that was cut from the film.)

The documentary reveals that Costner, under the stress of being both the director and one of the stars, carried on in spite of being very sick. His appendix had “busted and was leaking,” he says — a situation that can kill a man — but it didn’t get fixed (or even diagnosed) until several weeks after production was finished.

Picture and Sound

Open Range looks gorgeous and sounds very good on DVD. The film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1), and is enhanced for 16:9 TVs. Sound is encoded in Dolby Digital and DTS.