Genre: Action, Drama, Western

Rating:  R (for violence)

Release Date:  August 15, 2003

Actors:  Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Abraham Benrubi, Robert Duvall, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna, Michael Jeter

Director:  Kevin Costner

Special Notes:  "Dances With Wolves" was Costner's first time to direct (he won a "Best Director" Oscar), and this film is his third. Originally he had images of Montana as the backdrop for this story, but several factors forced the crew to take the project to Calgary, Canada. Cast member Michael Jeter was a talented actor who died after filming this past March.

Plot:  Boss Spearman (Duvall), Charley Waite (Costner), Mose Harrison (Benrubi) and "Button" (Luna) are cowboys who "free graze" their cattle across the vast prairies of the untamed West in the late 1800s. Boss and Charley share a friendship built on a code of honor and living a life unencumbered by civilization. When their need for supplies forces the cowboys to go into the small town of Harmonville, they encounter a corrupt sheriff and powerful rancher (Gambon) who governs the territory through fear and violence. Unusual circumstances ultimately force Boss and Charley into an inevitable showdown where they are forced to defend their freedom, values and lifestyle against hatred and prejudice. When one of their group is wounded, Charley and Boss take him to the town doctor where they meet Sue Barlow (Bening), the doctor's sister who assists her brother. With the odds stacked against them, the cowboy duo take a stand for what they believe in and end up fighting for not only themselves but the rest of the town as well.

Good:  This is an engaging and rewarding story full of ideals and principles that our 21st century culture is in desperate need of hearing. The story plays like a biblical parable, dealing with themes about truth, honor, loyalty, mentoring, friendship, love and standing up for what is right (even if taking that stand could mean certain death). This is not a modern day "shoot 'em up" Western that extols the virtues of gunslinging. Instead, producer/director Costner uses relationships to build and propel the story, not only between the two men and the hired help but between the townspeople and Charlie and Sue. The movie has the look of a classic Western with simple shots that reminded me of a John Ford movie and realistic dialogue that is both rewarding and memorable. Simple lines like; "Most times a man will tell you his intentions if you listen", "A man's trust is a valuable thing", "A man can get lost forgetting people" or "There are things worse than dying" stayed in my mind long after I left the theater. Costner is to be applauded for pairing himself with Duvall. The two are a powerful team of understated wisdom and strength and deliver brilliant and memorable performances. Apart from the legendary Duvall, Costner manages to do what he does best: he shows us a side of a cowboy hardened by disappointments in life and regrets over killing but at the same time, he can pick out a china pattern for a woman he may never see again. That kind of manhood will resonate with every woman in the audience, and it's a signature for what has made Costner appeal to both men and women. Bening is a breath of fresh air amidst this testosterone-laden story. In the few scenes she has (and with barely any makeup), she delivers realistic dialogue that comes from the heart and manages to speak volumes for single women over 35. Her matter-of-fact directness and boldness about being single ("I'm not a girl anymore") is tempered with a lifetime of disappointments and lost hopes and dreams which ultimately make her vulnerable to Charley's charm. Jeter adds a humorous touch as the stable owner who helps Boss and Charlie, and Benrubi and Luna are equally moving as the men who are mentored by Costner and Duvall. I love movies like "Open Range," but they are bittersweet for me to watch. On the one hand I'm reminded of an era gone by, when the western frontier created a place for man to birth his dreams - that's the obvious appeal to audiences. On the other hand, I'm painfully reminded that the days of wide-open spaces and a pioneer spirit have been squelched with overpopulation and a government that regulates every inch of it - and that's why I can escape into a story like this one. Sigh.

Bad:  Although the story plays like a biblical parable, unfortunately the language does not. Aside from what's classified these days as "mild language" and perhaps acceptable as "characteristic" for range-roaming cowboys, unfortunately the religious profanity seemed out of place when used by the very men who extol the virtue and honor we've come to admire. When will Hollywood writers and directors realize that the true "classics" of yesterday (the ones they are so eager to emulate) weren't filled with the religious profanity prevalent in movies today? And when will they realize that a good story and great dialogue don't need it? Aside from the obvious religious insult, from a professional standpoint a story that can stand on its own is only degraded by the lack of imagination it takes to write in a curse word in God's or Jesus' name. With as much passion and pride as Costner takes in his projects, you'd think he'd be more aware about pleasing the core of the audience that supports his movies. Adults, don't let the R rating scare you away from this movie. The language and gunfight violence are the reason it earned that rating. But honestly, I've seen and heard worse in some PG-13 movies. Early on we see the aftermath of violence that takes place off-camera (a man is killed, but nothing is graphically shown), a few men are knocked around by Boss and Charley and the gunfight is what you would imagine it would be – but nothing gratuitous.

Bottom Line: Despite my displeasure with the language, I enjoyed this movie for its positive aspects and strengths. Seeing men take a stand for what's right and wrong -- and proving that honor, integrity, truth, trust, loyalty, friendship and forgiving the past to embrace the future is what man's indomitable spirit is all about – was inspiring to me and will be to most audiences. It is truly rare these days to see a film that not only has a great message but contains great performances from actors like Costner and Duvall. If you're a fan of Westerns that mix a simple story with profound truths, you'll enjoy this movie.