The set-up is pretty familiar. Costner and co-star Robert Duvall are free-grazers - old-fashioned cattle-men who trek their herds across the plains, when and where they please. They are also the bosses, mentors and surrogate parents to two helpers, a boy and a burly cowpoke. Together they are the family they don't have and Costner builds an affecting picture of their dependence on each other. But of course they have the misfortune to camp outside a town run by corrupt cattle-baron Michael Gambon whose thugs target Costner's boys. Duvall's moral outrage and Costner's loyalty to his partner make a showdown inevitable.
Open Range is certainly a Costner film - he plays only a slight variation of many of his previous characters, less one-dimensional than his smirking Prince of Thieves and less dour than his web-footed mariner in Waterworld. But our Kevin knows how to fill a cinema screen and he lets the open country take centre stage. More generously, he lets a brilliant Duvall and doctor's assistant Annette Bening take a good share of the story. Bening is excellent and she and Costner display the confusions, tensions and longings of unspoken affection perfectly.
In fact, Open Range is packed with nuanced performances, bitter-sweet relationships and of course gritty violence. The showdown, when it comes, is a 20 minute masterclass of pace, action and realism. Guns shoot and miss, are very, very loud when they go off, are messy when they hit their target and there's nothing inevitable about the outcome. It's a brave film for Costner since neither he nor westerns have been popular for a long while. Is it going too far to say that Open Range will be seen as a classic western? Costner himself hoped this would be a film people will want to see now and also pull off the shelves in five years' time. Do yourself a favour - see it on the big screen where it belongs and judge for yourself.